Anne Steen wakes up around 5:30 every morning just to listen to the birds sing.
"It gets me to a more balanced place," said Steen, 64, who lives in Rutherfordton, North Carolina, and has been meditating, whether in formal mindfulness sessions with Buddhist monks or alone in nature, most days for the last 20 years.
Steen, a former Catholic who now attends a Southern Baptist church, works hard to cultivate a rich spiritual life. And yet, just a few hours after her melodious and meditative wake-up call, she'll be busy chasing after the toddler she babysits, barely able to catch her breath, let alone reflect on God.
The spiritual ebbs and flows that characterize Steen's daily life likely sound familiar to other people of faith. Spiritual awareness shifts drastically from moment to moment because it's dependent on environments, emotions and individual habits, according to a new study, which collected data from self-described spiritually minded people and was presented last month at the American Sociological Association's annual meeting.
The study illustrated how efforts to cultivate personal spirituality can be frustrated by even fleeting distractions, religion experts said. Simple things like the temperature of your office or spilling coffee on yourself can upset the balance achieved through practices like morning meditation.
"Our spiritual experience is completely tied to our embodied experience," said Andrew Dreitcer, an associate professor of spirituality and the director of spiritual formation at Claremont School of Theology.
However, the new findings also hold good news for people like Steen who are proactive about their spiritual lives. The study showed that being intentional about how you spend your time and tracking your spiritual awareness throughout the day helps you develop a deeper spiritual grounding.
"You can set your body up so that you don't have such a spontaneous negative reaction" to the stressful aspects of everyday life, Dreitcer said.
Researchers analyzed spirituality by collecting "God awareness" scores. The nearly 2,000 study participants rated their attentiveness to God, or whatever higher power is holy to them, on a scale from 1 to 100 twice a day for two weeks.
The timing of surveys varied from person to person and day to day. A phone notification prompted participants to complete each new round of questions, which also asked who a person was with and what he or she was doing.
Unsurprisingly, spiritual awareness was highest when participants were engaged in religious or spiritual activities such as attending worship services or meditating. The average score on Sundays, 66, was two to three points higher than scores recorded throughout the rest of the week. Spiritual awareness was low when people were at work or engaged in distracting activities like playing video games.
However, the study also exposed other patterns, illustrating how people's habits affect their spiritual awareness over time.
For example, researchers showed that friends did more for spiritual awareness in a given moment than family members, but that people who spent more time with their children or spouses during the survey period than others logged higher spiritual awareness scores overall.
Jaime Kucinskas, an assistant professor of sociology at Hamilton College and one of the study's co-authors, said she was most surprised by the music-related findings. People who completed surveys when listening to music assigned themselves an average God awareness score of 67, making it the second most spiritual activity studied by researchers, trailing prayer/worship/meditation by 18 points.
"Music has always been a part of certain religions. But in terms of research, not a lot of people have focused on it," Kucinskas said. "People talk about having transcendent experiences at concerts or shows," and this research supported this anecdotal evidence.
The smartphone boost
The most unique aspect of the new survey was that it used data collected through smartphones. The new technology allowed researchers to develop a rich understanding of "lived religion," Kucinskas said, noting that the survey might shift assumptions about what it's like to be religious in a secular workplace or how a morning meditation session affects the course of someone's day.
The survey app, SoulPulse, also illustrates how new technologies can influence the spiritual lives of individual believers, because participants are sent a summary of their survey responses after they've completed the two weeks of tracking. This summary is used as an incentive to recruit participants.
"You learn a lot about yourself and realize that you have habits you're not fully conscious of," Kucinskas said. SoulPulse "helps people clarify which activities and habits make them more likely to have special, sacred experiences."
The SoulPulse spirituality research is ongoing, and anyone can download the app to participate.
Smartphone spirituality apps, a category that also includes programs like Bloom and Remindful, are a modern and convenient way to train the mind to be more spiritually aware throughout the day, Dreitcer said, noting that keeping track of daily behaviors has always been a good tool to use to form new habits.
"Let's say you want to be more focused on tomatoes. If you journal about them constantly, noting whether you're thinking about tomatoes or not, your body is eventually going to be more attuned to tomatoes," he said. "That's just how our brain works."
Dreitcer takes advantage of this truth by having his students write reflections on assigned spiritual activities, like a compassion meditation, walking a labyrinth or repeating sections of the Psalms.
Nurturing personal spirituality helps people find balance, even if, as the study showed, spirituality will not always be at the front of their mind, he said. "These practices help people even out their responses" and stay calm in the midst of stress.
Steen said learning to be intentional about her spiritual practices has improved her overall outlook.
"There are days where you feel like you don't have a moment to think," she said. But even then, she lets brief glimpses of nature bring her back to a more spiritual state of mind.
"If I'm driving and see a beautiful tree or some flowers, I'll take a moment to express gratitude to God," Steen said. "Just a few deep breaths in and out make a huge difference."
Email: [email protected], Twitter: @kelsey_dallas