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
Holidays, Living, Politics, Spiritual Disciplines

Shalom Days

IMG_1018You don’t have to be a psychologist to realise that life in the 21st Century is increasingly like riding an out of control roller-coaster that continues on, ad-infinititum, with never an opportunity to get off. The result of this is a life full of underlying anxiety, overflowing with stress and beset with lifestyle illnesses and psychological suffering that would have been unimaginable just a few generations ago.  

Today I want to suggest to you an idea that may seem radical to many of you, yet would have been blindingly obvious to our forebears. It is a practice that every culture and every religion has encouraged, and which is found in every tribe and nation of the world. Only the most technologically ‘advanced’ nations, equipped with the most labour saving devices per household have found they no longer have time for such a practice, and suffer the physical, psychological and spiritual trauma that results from seeking to perpetually run the engine of their life at maximum revs.

The practice I am speaking of is that of the Sabbath, a day of rest, a lazy day, or as the title of this blog says, a Shalom day. The word Shalom is the Hebrew word for peace, and a Shalom day is a 24 hour period where the entire day spent awake is focussed on regaining our inner equilibrium, finding our centre and getting ourselves anchored in a peaceful state. The benefits are obvious. Our health improves as the stress levels of life are reduced. Our relationships benefit as we learn to release anger and breathe again. Our happiness levels soar as we give ourselves permission to rediscover the wonder of the world around us, and our sleep is invigorated as the neurotic jabbering of an overworked mind is gently hushed and brought to rest.

Taking such a day is like allowing yourself a retreat from the chaotic and hectic world you inhabit the rest of the week to rediscover the joy of simply being. Here are some ideas to get you going:

  • Make your Shalom day a tech free day. Switch off your phone, computer, TV and radio the evening before and leave it off until the next morning.
  • Wake up slowly and sit in bed with a cup of tea. Take time to look from your window, to feel your body coming alive, to take some deep, thankful breaths.
  • Whatever you do today, do it s-l-o-w-l-y.  This is not a day for rush. Tear up your schedules and to-do lists. 
  • Spend some some meditating, praying, slowly reading an inspirational book and allowing time to really ponder its message.
  • Take a slow walk in the country. Try to encounter all you see as though it were the first time you are seeing it.
  • Eat your food slowly and mindfully, tasting deeply the flavours and textures.
  • Do a little craft work. Hand write a letter to someone you love. Gaze at a flower. Wonder at the stars.
  • One Thing Only! Today is not a day for multi-tasking. Whatever you are doing, just do that one thing. If you are washing up, wash up like you are bathing the baby Jesus. If you are writing, just write. Be present, body, mind and soul in every activity of the day.
  • Sit beside some water; a lake or a river for example. Allow your soul to be restored. Listen to the lap of each wave. Lose yourself in the moment.
  • Go to bed early. Give thanks for all the blessings in your life. Read some of your favourite childhood novel before you fall asleep.

You cannot give to anyone that which you do not possess yourself. Taking a day like this may seem self-indulgent, but to nurture peace within yourself is the best gift you can give everyone around you. And out of the blessings of your Shalom day, you will be able to minister Shalom to all those you come in contact with. 

Standard
Spiritual Disciplines

The Priority of the Inner Life

inner-lifeIt is a strange phenomenon indeed that though we experience life from the outside-in, it must be lived from the inside-out. Our experience of reality comes to us via the senses: taste, touch, smell, sight and sound.  These five sensory inputs, combined with the relentless (and often neurotic) processing and reprocessing of the mind can often overwhelm us with information that leaves us in a state of constant reaction, fighting fires that may or may not be there, trying to quell fears and deal with anxieties that may not have any substance in reality and obsessively dealing with regret over the past and apprehension concerning the future. This outside-in pattern of living is highly unsustainable and is perhaps an excellent definition of insanity, which explains why our current generation is more anxious than Londoners during the Blitz, more depressed than the average American during the Great Depression and possibly more fearful than at any other time in human history.

To live from the inside-out is to reverse this pattern and learn to flow from the stable, eternal source that wells up inside each one of us. For the person who has discovered this eternal source, the incessant tugging of the ‘urgent periphery’ loses its hold; for the resources discovered within are limitless, timeless and utterly without depletion. The striving is gone. The urgency has vanished. The strain is absent. The storm is stilled. The soul has come home.

The cultivation of this inner life is the greatest and most rewarding activity that a human being can engage in. That you have this source is as undeniable as the fact of your existence, yet it is perfectly possible to live your entire life on the periphery without ever coming to the heart of the matter and discover the source from whence you flow. This is where your song is born. This is where your overcoming power resides. This is where intuitive wisdom is discovered. This is where you are truly known. This is home.

Meister Eckhart once said, “God is at home, it is we who have gone out for a walk.” As we return to this Inner Place, we find an Eden where we are welcomed to eat of the tree of life, a refuge where our weary hearts can find rest and nourishment, a sanctuary from the incessant barrage of modern life and a holy place where the screaming urgency of the world is drowned in the deafening silence of eternity and the dazzling array of sights blotted out by the softly nurturing darkness of the womb.

The doors to the Inner Life are many and have been carefully marked out over the years, yet in our days the Way has become hard to find and the markings of those who have gone before often bewildering to interpret. Many of the old paths have become overgrown and the tangle of years of neglect have made them difficult to trace. Yet for those who have ears to hear, eyes to see and a heart that yearns for something more, the ancient paths of solitude, prayer, contemplation, silence and meditation will still open for us a way back to Eden and serve as a highway to the source.

The secret was known by the Jewish Psalmist when he instructed his listeners to, “Be still and know that I am God” just as much as it was understood in 5th Century BC China by the sage Lao Tse when he wrote, “To the mind that is still, the whole universe surrenders.” The first step on the path home is a step that leads us away from the distracting technology, the urgent agenda, the busy life and the compulsion to keep the plates spinning and, if possible, add even more plates to the frantic dance that is our life.

There are many things we may feel we need to prioritise for a meaningful existence, but the truth is that the one thing we often forget is the most needful of all. To make time to come home to the hearth of the heart, the place of prayer, the shrine of solitude, the chapel of contemplation and the sanctum of silence is to make time to reconnect with the source of not only our own life but the life of every other being on the planet and every other thing in the universe. And coming home to this sacred space we discover that God has indeed never left home, it is truly us that have wandered…

Standard
Spiritual Disciplines

The Difference Between Knowledge and Wisdom

wisdom-epigramYou don’t have to be Einstein to see that our society is big on knowledge but lean on wisdom. Speaking of Einstein, a man who you would likely think of as above all else a towering intellect; he himself attributes his greatest insights not to moments of intense intellectual gymnastics, but to moments of inspired brilliance flowing from a deep rooted intuition.  He said, “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.”  

Knowledge is accumulated, stored and processed by the intellect. The disciplines for this are the disciplines of logic, deduction, study and debate, and take place in the study and the classroom.  Wisdom on the other hand is accumulated, stored and ruminated upon by the spirit. The disciplines for this are contemplation, meditation, solitude and silence, and take place in the vast wilderness of the heart and untamed wild places of this world.  He who gives his life to the former things will become a great intellectual. He who gives his life to the latter things will become a great sage.

Someone once said that the disciplines that bring wisdom all involve the slow chewing of the stuff of life until it is properly digested.  For this reason it cannot be hurried, rushed or flat-packed.  It cannot be taken as modules, consumed in fast-food sound-bytes or dissected as a laboratory experiment.  Perhaps this is why ever since the first Christmas story we instinctively look to the East to find wise men and women, and to civilisations that traditionally places great value on the internal disciplines.  The ancient Chinese character for wisdom shows an arrow, a mouth and a character meaning “all day”.  Literally it defines wisdom as the ability to speak and do that which is insightful and needful all day long.  It is interesting that the modern western civilisations that gave us the atom bomb and are currently showing the world how to destroy planet through insane consumption are civilisations that have no place for solitude, silence and contemplation, and therefore have little appreciation of wisdom.  As the King Crimson rock group sang in the song “Epitaph”:

“Knowledge is a deadly friend,
If no one sets the rules.
The fate of all mankind I see,
Is in the hands of fools.”

Knowledge will help you earn a fortune; wisdom will help you be content with very little.  Knowledge will gain you followers but wisdom will nurture your friends.  Knowledge will teach you about life; but wisdom will make that life worth living…

Standard