One of the great challenges of spiritual practice is not to confuse the form with the purpose. For example, when first learning to meditate, it is easy to assume that the practice is about noticing breath (or whatever the object of focus is) and that to be “successful” in meditation, you have to be able to sustain long, undistracted attention to the breath. But as we deepen the practice, it becomes clear that it is not actually about the breath at all. It is about many things: learning to live life with intentionality, noticing conditioning of all kinds, listening to the wisdom of the body, refining compassion and humility, cultivating dedication and concentration, just as a start. But it’s not really about the breath.
And yet, it actually is crucial to start with the breath. The breath is the form, the container through which these other benefits emerge. By using the structure of bringing attention to the breath, we can see more clearly what actually arises and experiment wisely with that. Occasionally we may be able to do this kind of work spontaneously without the form; sometimes the muse does strike us. But as spiritual practitioners (and good writers) know, more often than not, spontaneous wisdom and insight is a rare gift.
The same is true in prayer. Too often in the Jewish world we focus on mastering the form: the Hebrew, when to bow, sit or stand, all those words. In the world of Jewish prayer, it gets even more complicated, because, in fact, there isn’t just one form. We can work with the matbe’a (words of the prayer book), blessings, chanting, or hitbodedut (talking out loud to God)—each its own form to master. But in all cases, as we deepen our prayer practice, it becomes clear that it is actually not about the form. Just like in meditation, the form is the structure through which different kinds of experiences and experimentation can happen. Perhaps it is about opening the heart to God. Perhaps it is about opening the heart at all. Perhaps it is about cultivating gratitude and wonder or going deep into the unknown.
One way to differentiate between the form and purpose of spiritual practice is to practice with intention: Why am I doing this practice? What am I hoping or aiming for? Asking these question helps keep the form fresh. It infuses the form with possibility, with creativity, with aliveness. It is one of the things that can help make practice not rote, but transformational.