Spiritual Exercises

Living Sacrifice: The Third Spiritual Exercise

ImageThere is an old concept that has become popular again in our day, and that is the idea of being ‘centered’. This has caused a renewed interest in what contemplatives have long referred to as Centering Prayer. We normally describe a person who is ‘centered’ as someone who is not blown about by what is happening on the periphery of their life, but lives life from the ‘inside-out’ and is therefore in possession not only of their own responses to the situations and circumstances that confront them, but also manifest a deep peace, joy and presence that indicates that the source of their life is a deep well as opposed to the ephemeral vicissitudes of life.

The more you practice, the more you will find your mind becoming more obedient to the control of this spiritual core. You will find that the source of your life becomes tranquil, clear and full of wisdom as you learn to tap into what Charles Wesley referred to as that “hidden source of calm repose” within you. It is the journey from head to heart, that was best exemplified by the Tabernacle in the Old Testament and can be seen to this day in temple structures all over the world.

The apostle Paul reminds us of this when he tells the church in Corinth, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 6:19). Like most temples, the Bible describes human beings as being tripartite structures, comprised of Spirit, Soul and Body, with the body being the outer sheath where we come into contact with the world, the Spirit being the inner sanctum where God dwells, and the Soul being the mediating place between these two worlds where Spirit and Body communicate to each other. If our body gives us our World-Consciousness, and our Spirit provides us with our God-Consciousness, then it is our Soul that provides us with our Self-Consciousness.

All were welcome in the Outer Court of the Tabernacle. It was a large, open space, where the hustle and bustle of the day to day activity of the temple took place. It was noisy, messy, sometimes stressful and always busy. If you walked across this great courtyard, you would come to a smaller, Inner Courtyard; roofed against the elements; and as you pushed past the curtain and went inside you would discover a much quieter world, lit by candles, smoky with the heady incense of prayer and provided with a table stacked with bread that only the priests may eat. If the outer court represents the Body, then this Inner Court perfectly represents the Soul; somewhat shielded from the glare of the midday sun and protected from the clamour of all that is happening in the Outer Court, yet lit by the light of reason, nourished by the bread of the emotional realm and suffused with prayer. Beyond that lay a tiny room, no bigger than a small, perfectly square bedroom. Into this only the high priest may enter and then only once a year. Here, in this place of utter darkness, where the light of reason could not penetrate and the unpredictable nature of the emotions could not penetrate was the true dwelling place of God, where the infinite dwelt and burnt with moral and spiritual fire. As the High Priest entered this place, he would meet with that mystery of mysteries, and in the mute darkness where all separation between subject and object dissolved, could be renewed, transformed and energised. From this inner sanctum he would emerge as a new man, bringing deep wisdom to the tribe and yet utterly unable to truly express in words that which he experienced in this unutterable place of being.

The first four spiritual exercises take us on this same journey from the periphery of our lives to the deep centre of our being. There we discover things that cannot be spoken of in conceptual terms, and may only be hinted at in riddle, parable and simile, and yet without such a journey we find ourselves forever consigned to a life lived on the unsatisfying periphery of existence. The great pilgrimage awaits you, leading not outward to ever more frenetic activity but inward to the tranquil core. The first exercise prepares us for this journey. The second exercise helps us to orientate ourselves and become aware of the environment we find ourself in, lest we lose ourselves in flights of the imagination. In this third exercise, we take a survey of the temple itself, this incredible piece of workmanship we call the ‘body’, bringing appreciation, peace, healing and nourishment to it; learning to discover the presence of God that suffuses every atom, strengthens every sinew and brings life to every bone.

The Third Exercise

Sit in a comfortable position with an upright spine and eyes gently closed. Try to find a place where you won’t be disturbed. You may like to preface this exercise by spending five minutes on the First Exercise and five minutes on the Second Exercise as preparation for this.

Take three slow, centering ‘belly-breaths’. Be thankful as you feel the air passing through your nostrils, down your body and into your lungs, filling them with life-giving oxygen. Notice how your stomach rises to receive the air then notice how it contracts as the air is expelled. Follow the air as it leaves your body, realising that you are not separate from the air you breathe – the oxygen has just become part of your very being! As in all of the exercises, we will use the natural rhythm of breath as an anchor for the mind, and come back to it whenever we find our mind starting to daydream, loose itself in analysis, begin to worry or get dispersed in anything other than the matter in hand. When distractions come, just gently notice them, return to your breathing and they will naturally depart.

Now, focussing the light of awareness to your feet, take a long, slow in-breath, seeking to become aware of the whole of the foot, the toes and the ankles. Maybe you don’t like your feet, but the scripture says that those who bring joy into the lives of others have ‘beautiful feet’ (Is. 52:7), and Teresa of Avila also reminds us in her beautiful poem “Christ Has No Body” that we should no longer count our body as our own, but that our hands, our feet, our eyes, our hands and our entire body are now Christ’s. As you exhale, let your heart whisper the word, “Presence” to remind yourself of this fact, and imagine the presence of God filling this part of the temple. 

With the next exhalation, we silently speak the word, “Peace”. The Hebrew word for Peace is the word ‘shalom’, which literally means ‘nothing missing, nothing broken.’ To be in shalom is to be in health, peace and happiness. If our feet are tired or in pain, we can nourish them by blessing them with shalom peace.

With the third exhalation, we use the silent word, “Smile”.  We smile at our feet because they have been such faithful servants to us throughout our life and we smile with great thankfulness as we recognise this great gift we have been given. We often neglect our feet, and think them very stupid when we stub our toe, but today we are grateful for them and extend a smile towards them.

With the fourth exhalation we encourage our bodies with the word, “Release”, letting go of all tension and the stress we so often carry within our muscles and internal organs. when we speak to the body in this way, it is deeply therapeutic and wonderfully relaxing. A relaxed body, free from stress and tension is an incredibly helpful ally when it comes to spending long periods in prayer.

Here is the whole meditation:

(Breathe in…)
Presence…  (Breathing out)
(Breathe in…)
Peace…  (Breathing out)
(Breathe in…)
Smile…  (Breathing out)
(Breathe in…)
Release…  (Breathing out)

Note: If you are experiencing pain or sickness in an area of the body, you may like to substitute the words Wholeness and Ease instead of the words Smile and Release.

Once we have completed this, we move our awareness up our body, becoming conscious and giving thanks for the next part of the temple we come to. If you come to a part of your body that is giving you great physical difficulty, spend some time with it, speaking nourishing words to it and becoming deeply aware of the healing power of the presence of God in that area. If you have a lot of time available, you may break the body down into all of its composite parts and internal organs. If you have less time then you may just deal with the larger parts.  Finish by taking three deep, long breaths and imagine the life giving breath of God rising up from your belly, flooding the entire temple with health and wholeness. Let the wonder of being alive and the knowledge of the presence of God fill you with joy, just as it must have done for the early disciples when Jesus breathed into his disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” (John 20:22)

Here is a list of the parts of the temple you may wish to use in meditation:

Feet / Calves / Knees / Legs / Hips / Abdomen (and internal organs) / Back / Heart / Shoulders / Arms / Hands / Neck / Mouth / Ears / Eyes / Nose / Head

By the time you have finished, I think you will agree with the Psalmist who in joyful wonder exclaimed that he has been, “knit together in my mother’s womb” and that he had been “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:13-14). As you grow in your practice, your body will cease to be an unresponsive spectator in your devotional life and become a valuable, active participant, and in so doing you are truly able to “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing unto God. This is your proper and true act of worship” (Romans 12:1)

Standard
Spiritual Exercises

Full Awareness: The Second Spiritual Exercise

C338BD03-C6C0-4A7A-8ADD-FB8E283F034CPerhaps the biggest hindrance to developing a deeply satisfying prayer life is the problem of the mind. The brain is a wonderful tool for solving problems, but can become a terrible difficulty when it comes to the exercise of the spirit. The reason for this is that the brain has for so long dominated man’s being that when it comes time to pray (which is predominantly a spiritual activity in which the mind plays only a supporting role), it rather resents giving up its position of dominance and tries every trick in the book to keep the centre of our attention on meeting its relentless needs, questions, worries and fears.

The first five exercises are intended to help us bring discipline to our unruly mind; quietening it’s insane chatter so that we may clearly hear the voice of the Spirit. This is harder than it appears, as anyone who has made prayer a serious practice can testify! To maintain a calm, serene and peaceful mind, one that is at full attention and deeply aware yet acting only as a servant to the spirit and not the master, is the mark of every true man and woman of prayer. Paul describes this as, “taking every thought captive and bringing it into conformity to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5), while he tells us in Romans 12:2 that we will only be transformed when our mind is renewed from being something that dominates the spirit to being that which serves the spirit. 

The second exercise is called Full Awareness, and trains the mind to focus on what is actually happening right now rather than obsessing about past events, future fears, fantasy flights of the imagination or simply getting lost in analysis. It helps us to calm the mind in order to become gently aware and deeply thankful for the moment we find ourselves in right now, for the environment around us and for life as it presents itself to us. It is an exercise in what Paul would describe as, “giving thanks for all things” (1 Thess. 5:18).  As it becomes increasingly aware of the physical environment in which it is currently immersed, it recalls the mind from its normal state of dispersal to a single-pointed state of deep awareness and heartfelt gratitude.

The Second Exercise: Full Awareness

Sit in a comfortable position, back straight and body relaxed. Close your eyes and rest your hands in your lap. Take a few deep breaths and remind yourself that the spirit within you is none other than the very life of God, breathed into you when you were created. Like the first exercise, we are going to use breath as a way to slow the exercise down, avoiding the common human habit of rushing through things in order to achieve a goal. There is no ‘goal’ as such, just an ongoing commitment that in the space of this breath, I will devote myself to becoming aware of all that is around me and being deeply thankful for it.

Establish yourself in the gentle rhythm of breath, becoming deeply thankful for each ‘in’ breath and each ‘out’ breath. Then, when you are ready, with your next ‘in’ breath begin to become aware of your surroundings. Maybe you can hear the birds singing, the sunlight on your eyelids, the murmur of the wind in the trees. Maybe you can sense the energy of the person sitting beside you (if you are performing this exercise as part of a group). Maybe a car drives past, a fly lands on your nose or you can smell the flowers. Don’t get caught up in analysing these phenomena (the mind is very subtle and can easily divert you into analysis here). As these sensations arise, just let them come, be aware of them and then let them fade naturally, as though if your body is a house and the various phenomena are temporary visitors. Simply allow them to be, letting them pass through the front door of your ‘house’ and leave through the back door – just don’t make them tea! Remember that you are simply noticing the sensations presented to you by the ears, eyes, nose, mouth and touch without getting involved in them. If you find yourself getting lost in thinking, just return your attention to the natural rhythm of the breath – and then thank God for that!

As each phenomena arises, recognise it and gently offer thanks. It is easy to give thanks for birdsong, but you can also give thanks for a dog barking or a car revving it’s engine. Be equanimous with whatever is happening, and, as it passes out the ‘back door’ of your perceptions, bestow on it your blessing and a gentle smile.

You might like to spend five or ten minutes or even longer on this, and you may like to preface it by using the First Exercise – ‘Coming Home’  as an introductory practice, and then just move right on in to this second exercise after five minutes of preparatory work.

This exercise is a lovely antidote for an overtired, stressed mind that has worked for far too long at far too fast a pace. Often when we are in this state of haste, we can miss the many splendored things around us that God has placed in our path to nourish and strengthen our souls. As we practice this way, we will find that we become naturally much more attuned to these little blessings that cross our path, and our capacity for thankfulness increases dramatically. Of course, the result of this is that we become much happier and peaceful, and far more able to hear the gentle voice of the Spirit as he ministers to us throughout the day. Enjoy your practices!

Standard
Spiritual Exercises

Coming Home: The First Spiritual Exercise

01D52949-E625-491A-AECD-25164BA7387EGod is talking. All of the time. Very Slowly. Very quietly.  And that’s why we almost always miss what He’s saying. In the midst of our fast moving, fast talking world of noise and busyness God simply can’t get a word in edgeways! 

Prayer, at it’s root, is the act of quietening the incessant noise of the mind and opening up the ears of our heart in order that we might tune in to the voice of Eternity. The modern contemplative tradition within the Christian church draws on sources of faith that are truly global and seeks to present practical tools that enable this to take place. These are often referred to as Spiritual Exercises, and comprise an adventure in prayer that is deeply nourishing to the spiritual life; providing a simple set of marker points that help spiritual seekers avoid stagnation and disillusionment as they start to learn the ‘inner way’ and discover the Kingdom of God that dwells within.

At the church I lead, we refer to the first exercise that we commonly use as ‘Coming Home’. To come home is to return to the centre-point of our being, the Holy of Holies where the Creator dwells in the heart of every child of God. It is a simple practice that helps to quieten the mind; opening our awareness so that we may begin to encounter the presence of God. It is also simple enough to teach a child, and powerful enough to calm the strongest emotional storm. 

A Word About Breath: In order to listen clearly to anyone, we must give them our full and undivided attention, in just the same way that in order to truly ‘see’ a sunset we must become fully present in the moment and give ourselves entirely to the event unfolding before our eyes. Because our minds often resemble a bag of monkeys, the process of attaining single-pointed concentration is tremendously helped by having a stable object to focus the mind on. This gives us a bit of ‘space’ in which we can gently reach out with our hearts to apprehend the spiritual reality without our efforts being constantly sabotaged by ‘monkey-brain’.  Within the Christian contemplative tradition, the act of praying in rhythm to the breath is often called Breath Prayer. When we use breath in prayer, we simply take a word or phrase and marry it to what is naturally happening with the breath. An example would be:

“The Lord is my shepherd…”  (Breathing in)
“I shall not want…”  (Breathing out)

We will be going into this practice in more detail as we journey through the exercises, but for now it is enough to seek to gently join the phrases used in the ‘Coming Home’ practice to the natural rhythm of breath, understanding that it is “the breath of God that gives me life.” (Job 33:4)

Word about Posture: The spiritual exercises can be used at any time and in any place and need no equipment to perform. This is one of the wonderful things about them – they may be used on the train during a commute, whilst standing in a supermarket queue or even waiting for the traffic lights to change. While this is true, it has also been found that to adopt a slightly different posture for intense periods of prayer can be very beneficial. With practice, the mind starts to associate a particular position with the act of prayer and naturally begins to quieten down whenever that position is adopted. Choose a position where you can sit straight, with unobstructed breathing and a straight spine. Some people may choose to kneel, sit cross-legged on the floor or use a prayer-bench or cushion. Adopting a different position may involve a little discomfort at first as our bodies are used to spending most of the day in a sitting position, but if you persevere your posture can become part of the act of prayer, just as the lifting up of hands can become a helpful part of the act of worship.

The First Exercise: Coming Home

Find a comfortable position for prayer where you are unlikely to be disturbed and which is as quiet as possible. Take a few deep, nourishing breaths and allow your body to relax as you turn your attention from the busy external life to the perpetual calm of the internal source.

Take each word or phrase. As you focus on each, let the word and the breath become one single act, rising and falling together. At the end of the exercise, simply return back to the beginning until your meditation time is finished. Try to bring your body into line with the word being meditated on. For instance, when we say “I smile”, let a gentle smile be upon your lips. When we come to the word, “Presence”, tenderly reach out with your heart and become aware of the presence of God that fills and enfolds you.

“In…”  (Breathing in)
“Out…”  (Breathing out)
“Deep…”  (Breathing in)
“Slow…”  (Breathing out)
“In His Presence…”  (Breathing in)
“Is peace…”  (Breathing out)
“I smile…”  (Breathing in)
“I am home…”  (Breathing out)

You may like to begin by setting yourself five minutes in the morning and five minutes in the evening for this, as soon as you wake up and just before you go to bed. If this works for you, extend it to however long you find helpful.  Shalom

Standard