Practice-Oriented Spirituality: Unleashing the Power of Conscious Commitment

by Greg Mackie

As Course students, we often regard ourselves as nonconformists who have freed ourselves from the influence of that illusory world out there. Yet I suspect that we are influenced by that world far more than we realize. Our spiritual journey is shaped to a large degree by social factors so pervasive that we may not even realize they are there. If this is true, then learning more about these factors offers us a real practical benefit: it can free us from their hidden influence and enable us to choose more consciously how to walk our path.

Along these lines, I recently read a fascinating book by sociologist Robert Wuthnow, whom renowned scholar of religion Harvey Cox has called "the most informed and insightful commentator on religion in America today."1 Wuthnow's book, entitled After Heaven: Spirituality in America since the 1950s, combines historical analysis with statistical surveys and in-depth interviews to track the trends in American spirituality in the last fifty years. What's more, he advocates a direction for the future. He champions a way of spiritual life he calls practice-oriented spirituality, claiming that it offers practical benefits no other form of spirituality can match. If he is right, then this direction may be one we want to take, if we haven't already.

I believe Wuthnow is right: practice-oriented spirituality holds out the greatest promise for bringing about deep spiritual transformation. In this article, then, we will take a journey through the trends Wuthnow describes, with practice-oriented spirituality as our destination. Along the way, I invite you to reflect on how your own spiritual path may have been influenced—or is currently influenced—by these trends. In the end, I hope to show that practice-oriented spirituality is not only the wave of the future, but also the way of A Course in Miracles. In my view, embracing the Course as practice-oriented spirituality offers huge benefits because it unleashes the power of conscious commitment, the key to success in every endeavor, including the spiritual path. It is thus the key to successfully taking hold of the glorious promises of the Course—the gateway to experiencing all that this marvelous spiritual path has to offer.

Three alternatives: dwelling, seeking, practice

In After Heaven, Wuthnow traces a progression in American spiritual life that echoes many of our own spiritual journeys: from dwelling-oriented spirituality to seeking-oriented spirituality. He then goes on to present practice-oriented spirituality as an alternative to both dwelling and seeking. (I will often use the shorthand terms "dwelling," "seeking," and "practice" to refer to these three alternatives.) These alternatives have been part of every spiritual tradition, and represent different ways of living the spiritual life.2 They are not mutually exclusive, but rather differ in their emphasis, as the word "oriented" suggests.

Let's take a closer look at all three alternatives. Wuthnow's account is richly detailed, and my brief summary will not do it justice. My intent is simply to capture the essence of each alternative.

Dwelling-oriented spirituality

The central image of dwelling-oriented spirituality is the spiritual home. Emphasized in times of relative stability, this form of spirituality was dominant for most of America's history through the 1950s. Wuthnow describes its essence as follows:

A spirituality of dwelling emphasizes habitation: God occupies a definite place in the universe and creates a sacred space where humans too can dwell; to inhabit sacred space is to know its territory and to feel secure. (3-4)3

Dwelling in the traditional religious institution

Dwelling-oriented spirituality is essentially that of traditional religion4—or, as a well-known hymn puts it, "that old-time religion." The spiritual life is rooted in lifelong membership in a church or other religious institution; this form of spirituality hearkens back to an earlier time, when most people "were cradle-to-grave members of their particular traditions" (2). Here, living a spiritual life boils down to "dwelling" in your spiritual home: going to religious services, performing the rites, following the rules, and filling your expected role in the community. This, of course, is the spirituality many of us grew up with.

Where do you stand in relation to dwelling-oriented spirituality?

Wuthnow says dwelling-oriented spirituality has fallen out of favor, because it simply doesn't meet people's needs the way it used to. True, some do feel nurtured by the dwelling-oriented faith they grew up in. Dwelling has genuine strengths, the primary one being the security of feeling at home. Wuthnow, quoting Ann Truitt, calls this security "'the lighthearted feeling of being in a litter' of kittens" (5).

Yet we're all familiar with the downside: a secure home can easily become a prison. Narrowly defined sacred space doesn't allow us to move and grow and adapt to changing times. Many people regard the religion they grew up in as shallow and superficial, "a kind of formulaic religiosity" (40) in which being "religious" meant doing what the institution told you without question. A woman with a Catholic-Baptist background sums up the feeling: "I was afraid to move, afraid to explore. I felt doomed, helpless, powerless" (55).

Think for a moment about where you stand in relation to dwelling-oriented spirituality. Consider the following questions:

  • When you think of traditional religion, are the feelings it brings up more like the warm security of being in a litter of kittens, or like doom, helplessness, and powerlessness?
  • When you imagine the traditional religious way of life, do you see believers going through a profoundly transformative process of spiritual awakening, or do you see them going through the motions in a rote, spiritually deadening way?
  • When you encounter adherents of traditional religion-for instance, those who liked the movie The Passion of the Christ—is your reaction mostly positive, or negative?

I'd be willing to bet that your answers were mainly on the negative side. Indeed, my impression is that many if not most Course students are refugees from dwelling-oriented spirituality. I didn't come from that old-time religion, but I've heard the horror stories of those who have. In general, the Course community has a dim view of anything that smacks of traditional religion—a view reflected, for instance, in the negative reaction toward the idea of Course-based churches. I even read something recently by a Course student who dislikes the Second Edition's numbering system because "the numbers for chapter and verse give the Course a dismayingly ecclesiastical flavor." The upshot is that by and large, we Course students have, like the culture around us, rejected dwelling-oriented spirituality as too rigid, too constraining, and too shallow to meet our spiritual needs.

Seeking-oriented spirituality

The central image of seeking-oriented spirituality is the spiritual journey. Emphasized in more turbulent times, it rose to the fore during the tumultuous changes of the 1960s, and has remained dominant to this day. Wuthnow describes its essence this way:

A spirituality of seeking emphasizes negotiation: individuals search for sacred moments that reinforce their conviction that the divine exists, but these moments are fleeting; rather than knowing the territory, people explore new spiritual vistas. (4)

Seeking in the spiritual marketplace

If dwelling-oriented spirituality is that old-time religion, seeking-oriented spirituality is the New Age smorgasbord.5 The spiritual life is rooted in an ongoing search for experiences of the divine in a diverse spiritual marketplace. Churches and other religious institutions are still a viable option, but few people are cradle-to-grave members. Instead, they switch churches frequently, seeing their chosen church as not so much a home, but rather "a supplier of spiritual goods and services" (15). Here, living a spiritual life generally means reading lots of spiritual books, going to workshops and retreats, attending support groups, visiting spiritual teachers and healers, and anything else that contributes to our inner journey. Sound familiar? For most of us, this is what being spiritual is all about.

Where do you stand in relation to seeking-oriented spirituality?

Wuthnow says that seeking-oriented spirituality is the spirituality of today, and it is easy to see why. Its great strength is that it frees us from the prison of dwelling. It allows us to explore, to build a flexible spiritual life that can help us cope with these crazy times. As so many of us have discovered, it can be exhilarating and even life-saving to break free from a repressive spiritual home and "explore new spiritual vistas." The Catholic-Baptist I quoted earlier did just that, and describes her experience this way:

I somehow felt freer. I felt as if I had more control over my own life. I felt released from the shackles. I still couldn't quite get a grasp on my life, but I was free of the angry God and hypocritical church experiences of my childhood. (55-56)

Think for a moment about where you stand in relation to seeking-oriented spirituality. Consider the following questions:

  • Do you like the idea of seeking for spiritual sustenance from a variety of sources instead of just one source?
  • Do you like the idea that life is a journey, not a destination?
  • When you encounter "alternative" spiritual seekers—for instance, those who liked the movie What the #!%& Do We Know?—is your reaction mostly positive, or negative?

I suspect this time your answers were more positive. Indeed, seeking-oriented spirituality is for most of us a huge step up from dwelling. Yet it, too, has its downside. The freedom of leaving a repressive spiritual home can easily lead to spiritual homelessness. Seeking in itself is not the problem; on the contrary, it is a necessary part of spiritual growth. The problem arises when seeking becomes an end in itself, rather than a means to reach a destination. If we believe that life is only a journey and never a destination, then "the height of spiritual existence becomes the process of journeying, seeking, perceiving, and experiencing" (149). Ironically, this can become just as shallow and superficial as the repressive home we left behind. Constantly shifting from one thing to another is, to use a popular image, like digging many shallow wells instead of one deep one. In short, "A spirituality of seeking…results in a transient spiritual existence characterized more often by dabbling than by depth" (168).

I think seeking-oriented spirituality is the spirituality of most Course students. We have absorbed the influence of the surrounding culture well. And for those who have not yet determined whether the Course is their path, this is perfectly appropriate. I dabbled in the Course for years, while simultaneously exploring everything from Raja Yoga to Zen Buddhism to the Twelve Steps to New Thought. This was rewarding for a time, but eventually lost its appeal. It was like dating one woman after another, without ever entering into a committed relationship. So, eventually, I committed to the Course as my path-probably the single most important decision of my life.

Once this commitment is made, everything changes. Once we have entered a committed relationship, continuing to play the field causes nothing but problems. Yet my impression is that even those who regard the Course as their path tend to be simultaneously in the seeking mode. You might want to ask yourself where you stand in this regard. If you believe the Course is your path, and yet you still seek in the spiritual marketplace for different teachings and methodologies that promise to deliver sacred moments, then is it possible that you are like someone who has found her true partner but continues dating anyway? Might you be more fulfilled if you settled down with your chosen "partner"—the Course—and really dedicated yourself to a committed relationship with it? Might this be a more effective way to meet your spiritual needs than dwelling or seeking?

Practice-oriented spirituality

Practice-oriented spirituality combines the best elements of dwelling and seeking; it offers us a spiritual home and a spiritual journey. Wuthnow describes its essence this way:

To say that spirituality is practiced means that people engage intentionally in activities that deepen their relationship to the sacred….In many cases, these activities are life-transforming, causing people to engage in service to others and to lead their lives in a worshipful manner. (169)

In practice-oriented spirituality, the spiritual life is rooted neither in belonging to a religious institution nor in exploring the spiritual marketplace. Instead, it is rooted in practice: regular, intentional activities meant to deepen our relationship with God. Wuthnow's examples of such activities include prayer, meditation, contemplation, study of sacred texts, devotional reading, and service. These activities and others like them are the heart of the spiritual life.

Wuthnow fleshes out his picture of practice-oriented spirituality by describing some of its characteristics, based on the reports of people who are engaged in spiritual practice. Again, his account is richly detailed; the following is a brief summary.

Practice is intentional, disciplined, and long term.

Commitment to a regular practice regimen is essential for deepening our relationship with God. As with any endeavor, practice makes perfect. Only when we apply ourselves in a disciplined way over time do we make real headway.

Practice involves self-reflection and discernment.

In practice-oriented spirituality, not everything goes. Not every impulse is God. In practice, we engage in careful self-examination in light of our deepening relationship with God. Through this, we learn how to distinguish the pull of God from the pull of other desires.

Practice is interlaced with daily life.

It is meant to penetrate every moment of our day. The ultimate goal is a life of such consistency and integrity that "one's practice of spirituality becomes indistinguishable from the rest of one's life" (198).

Practice has a social dimension.

It is not usually a solitary journey, but rather is nourished by a relationship with a larger community of practitioners. Even those who practice alone benefit indirectly from the resources such communities offer. Practice support can come from peers, and also in the form of teacher-pupil relationships. Moreover, practice is often grounded in a particular tradition. Practice-oriented organizations can aid practitioners by offering both roots and wings: roots to ground them in a particular tradition, and wings to help them explore within the context of that tradition.

Practice is guided by rules.

If we want the benefits of the spiritual life, there is practical value in having some rules, both for how to practice and how to treat other people. Appropriate rules are not arbitrary "authoritarian" impositions, but instead follow the principle that "doing X is necessary for achieving Y" (184): doing certain activities is necessary for achieving our spiritual goals.

Practice leads to a life of service.

The desire to serve others naturally flows from our relationship with God. As one practitioner says, "When you are deeply loved by God, you want to return it" (194). This service deepens our relationship with God and others, and helps us discover who we really are. As another practitioner who works with AIDS patients says, "It has given me that sense that I'm a spiritual being—that every day, every moment I am connected with the creator" (195).

Practice is rewarding.

Those who devote themselves to spiritual practice universally acclaim that "there is no better way to live" (180). It delivers the priceless reward of deeper conscious contact with God—an experience of grace—and this strengthens motivation and commitment to practice.

The Course as practice-oriented spirituality

What amazes me is that the Course's path embodies Wuthnow's description of practice-oriented spirituality to a stunning degree. The Course is not just a treasure trove of fascinating ideas for spiritual seekers, but "an organized, well-structured and carefully planned program" (T-12.II.10:1) for spiritual practitioners. This program consists of regular, intentional activities meant to deepen our relationship with God. This is meant to be the heart of the spiritual life for students of the Course.

At the Circle, we see three main activities in the Course's program: study, practice, and extension to others. All three fit Wuthnow's broader definition of the term "practice." Strikingly, all three are included in his list of specific activities: study (study of sacred texts, devotional reading), practice (prayer, meditation, contemplation), and extension (service). Just as strikingly, the characteristics of practice-oriented spirituality all have strong parallels in the Course's path.

The Course's path is intentional, disciplined, and long term.

Commitment to a regular practice regimen—daily study of the teaching, Workbook-style practice, and extending miracles to others—is vital to the Course. Its whole program is geared toward providing "the long-range disciplinary training your mind needs" (W-pI.65.4:4). Only when we apply ourselves in a disciplined way over time will we find the peace, happiness, and salvation we seek (see W-pI.20.2).

The Course's path involves self-reflection and discernment.

The Course is clear that not every impulse is God. On the contrary, most of our impulses-even many that look "godly"-come straight from the ego. Therefore, Course practice involves careful self-examination in light of our deepening relationship with God. Through this, we learn how to distinguish the pull of God from the pull of the ego.

The Course's path is interlaced with daily life.

Course practice is meant to penetrate into every moment of our day. "It is meant to serve you in all ways, all times and places, and whenever you need help of any kind" (W-pI.RIII.In.11:5). The long-range goal is to become an advanced teacher of God, a person who embodies perfect consistency, integrity, and goodness in every aspect of her life.

The Course's path has a social dimension.

The Course never depicts the spiritual journey as solitary, but rather as a collaborative venture. While this is often overlooked, the Course does speak of students supporting one another on the path. It extols the benefits of two people joining in practice (see W-pI.183.5:4). Its author encouraged Helen and Bill to "take" the Course together. The Manual advocates a teacher-pupil relationship, in which a more experienced teacher mentors a less experienced pupil. All of this suggests the value of a community of practitioners committed to the Course's path-a commitment the Course certainly encourages. I believe Course-based organizations can facilitate this collaborative venture by providing the resources people need to walk the path together: the roots of grounding in the Course as a unique spiritual tradition, and the wings to explore all it has to offer.

The Course's path is guided by rules.

The benefits the Course promises are tied directly to following the rules it gives us, especially for its practice. It gives us rules for decision (T-30.I) and instructions for Workbook practice that we are urged to follow. It also provides rules (almost all of which are mental rules) for how to treat other people, even giving its own version of the Golden Rule (see T-1.III.6). These rules all follow the principle that "doing X is necessary for achieving Y." "If you do it, you will see that it works" (T-9.V.9:2).

The Course's path leads to a life of service.

Service to others is the crowning glory of A Course in Miracles. We are told that the miracle "is the maximal service you can render to another" (T-1.I.18:2). Salvation is complete only when we give the love we have received from God to all the world. The loving service of extending miracles deepens our relationship with God and our brothers. Through this service, we finally recognize fully that we are spiritual beings, holy Sons of God who have never left our Creator.

The Course's path is rewarding.

I can't imagine a better way to live. The Course promises that following its program will bring us inner peace, radiant joy, freedom from all suffering, and ultimately awakening to our eternal heavenly home. I haven't experienced all that yet to be sure, but my practice has blessed me with far greater spiritual rewards than anything else I've tried. This has certainly strengthened my motivation and commitment to practice. My experience so far has given me hope that the Course really means it when it says, "Your practicing can offer everything to you" (W-pI.RIII.In.4:5).

Where do you stand in relation to practice-oriented spirituality?

In Wuthnow's view, "The ancient wisdom that emphasizes the idea of spiritual practices needs to be rediscovered" (16). The beauty of practice-oriented spirituality is that it combines dwelling and seeking: one could describe it as seeking for God within a particular dwelling—our practice. It thus incorporates the strengths of both, while minimizing their weaknesses. It provides the secure home of dwelling without the imprisonment, and the freedom of seeking without the homelessness. It offers the best of both worlds.6

Think for a moment about where you stand in relation to practice-oriented spirituality. Consider the following questions:

  • Does the picture presented above accurately describe how you see the Course?
  • Is intentional, disciplined, long-term practice the heart of your spiritual life?
  • When you consider taking on this kind of practice, is your reaction more positive, or negative?

If you are a typical Course student, I suspect your answers here were more on the negative side. If this is so, might it be because you have followed the social trend Wuthnow describes: the progression from dwelling to seeking? Is it possible that you have rejected dwelling and embraced seeking so thoroughly that you find it difficult to see the Course as a path of practice that includes elements of dwelling as well as seeking?

I think we Course students tend to view the Course through the lens of the "dwelling versus seeking" conflict. As a result, we've tended to emphasize the elements that look like seeking (the cool metaphysical ideas, the reversal of traditional Christianity, the freedom of choice, the inner focus, the honoring of other paths) and de-emphasize the elements that look like dwelling (the discipline, the rules, the social dimension, the focus on serving others, the long-term commitment to a single path). Our bias toward seeking has tended to obscure the fact that the Course is a practice-oriented spirituality that integrates seeking and dwelling. In my opinion, this has given us an incomplete view of the Course that has not allowed it to meet our spiritual needs as well as it could.

Unleashing the power of conscious commitment

In my mind, the great gift of practice-oriented spirituality is that it unleashes the power that comes from conscious commitment to a spiritual path. To bring back my earlier analogy, dedicating ourselves to a practice is the end of playing the field and the beginning of a fulfilling committed relationship with our chosen beloved.

To use another analogy, the journey to practice-oriented spirituality is something akin to the process of growing up. Dwelling-oriented spirituality represents unconscious commitment, the unquestioning acceptance characteristic of childhood. Seeking-oriented spirituality represents the rejection of commitment, the search for new experiences characteristic of adolescence and young adulthood. Both of these phases are valuable, even necessary: dwelling provides a secure nest for our formative years, and seeking enables us to leave the nest when we're ready to fly. But practice-oriented spirituality is the pinnacle that lies even beyond the flight of seeking, because only here do we make a conscious commitment to a mature spiritual path. As Wuthnow puts it, "Spiritual practice takes this kind of seeking a step further, adding the vital element of sustained commitment, without which no life can have coherence" (198).

This sustained commitment enables our spiritual life to take off. The experience of generations has taught that only such commitment brings lasting success in any endeavor, spirituality included. This doesn't mean our commitment to a particular path must be engraved in stone; the practice of self-reflection may well lead us to adjust our course at times. The point is simply that whatever path we choose, we will make real progress only to the degree that we dedicate ourselves to it heart and soul. The great masters of all traditions have known this. Show me a St. Francis or Mother Teresa or Dalai Lama, and I'll show you a person who has dedicated his or her life to practice. Practice-oriented spirituality is the "active ingredient" in all great spiritual paths, the engine that has powered their most advanced adherents to enlightenment.

Where are you, then, on the continuum from dwelling to seeking to practice? Wherever you are, there are gifts to be found there. But I believe that same powerful engine has been installed into the Course, and in the end, only embracing the Course as practice-oriented spirituality will truly deliver all the benefits it holds out to us. If the Course is your path, is it perhaps time to take the next step and unleash the power of conscious commitment in your life?


1. Robert Wuthnow, After Heaven: Spirituality in America since the 1950s (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), back cover.

2. Thus, while moving from one alternative to another may involve moving from one spiritual tradition to another, it doesn't have to. A Christian, for example, could move from dwelling to seeking to practice without ever leaving Christianity.

3. This reference means "After Heaven, pp. 3-4." For convenience, all references to After Heaven are indicated with page numbers in parentheses.

4. When I say "traditional religion," I don't mean that all established religious traditions (like Christianity, Buddhism, etc.) are dwelling-oriented. The point here is that for most ordinary people through most of history, the religious way regarded as "traditional" has been dwelling-oriented.

5. Seeking-oriented spirituality is not confined to the New Age, however. Indeed, a major bastion of seeking is conservative evangelical megachurches, which often describe themselves as "seeker churches."

6. Of course, this assumes that we are reasonably mature practitioners. Since all of us have egos, practice-oriented spirituality has its potential pitfalls like anything else.

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