Author Archives: Jeff

About Jeff

The stories that speak to our soul begin at a home where things are good. Cinderella is happy with her father. The three little pigs have grown up and are ready to move on. Bilbo Baggins knows his shire. Adam and Eve walk with God in the garden. My story isn’t much different. There was a time and a place where it was so good. There was a community for me. And there was joy. We were filled with a sincere desire to do what God wanted us to do. We possessed explanations and understandings that went a certain distance. We offered security and tradition and laughter. For a lot of years, that was enough. I have this sense that it was also necessary. I have this surety, now, that it certainly wasn’t everything. There were some things that became increasingly problematic as time went by. There was a desire to package things up so very neatly. Sunday morning services were efficient and strategic. Responses to differences of opinion were premeditated. Formula began to feel more important than being real. A real desire for everybody to be one of us, but also a real sense that there is an us, and there is a them. They carried a regret that it has to be this way, but deeper than this regret was a surety that this is how it is. I began to recognize that there was a cost of admission to that group. There were people who sat at the door, collecting it. Those people wished they didn’t have to. But I guess they felt like they did have to. They let some people in, and they left others out. There was a provisional membership. My friends did possess a desire to accommodate people that are different… But it would be best for everyone concerned if they were only a little bit different. I did make many steps forward in this place. Before I went there, there were lies that I believed. Some of the things that I learned there, I still hold on to. But that place is not my home anymore. Those people are not my community anymore. There were times it was hard. I am engaged in a different community now. And I am working hard at finding a place in many different places now, embracing many different kind of families. I don’t always get it right. I am trying and I am learning and I am moving foreward. I have this sense that I am not alone in these experiences. I believe that we are tribe and we are growing. We are pilgrims, looking for a new holy land. Perhaps we won’t settle on the same spot of land. But if you’ve read this far, I am thinking that we are probably headed in the same general direction. I have begun this blog to talk about where my journey is taking me. In every space, we find people who help us along. And maybe we can get to know each other, here. We embrace ideas that provide a structure for the things we believe, and perhaps we can share these too. Maybe we can form a group, a tribe, a community, if we can figure out a way to work through the shadow of these kinds of groups, if we can bigger than the us-and-them ideas that have caused so much trouble in the past. As important as they are, I think the very nature of online interactions will lend itself to something equally powerful. I am stumbling onto these practices that my grandfathers and great grandfathers in the faith engaged in. I am learning about these attitudes and intuitions are so different than the kinds of things we call doctrine today. I don’t know about you, but I am running out of patience, and even interest, in conversations about doctrine. I hope that maybe you’ll share a little something about where your journey is taking you, and maybe our common joys and challenges might help each other along, and we might lift each other up. Thanks for doing this journey with me.

Exercise 73: Whole Body Mystical Awakening

Background: Today marks something new for the Faith-ing Project. This the first spiritual practice on the site which I am merely reposting. None of this description came from me. My hope for 2021 is that this becomes an increasingly frequent practice here. A first step for a contemplative is to take a brisk jog through the sorts of practices that are out there. But I hope that you have the oppurtunity to take a deeper dive into traditions, practices, and communities. I am beginning with this practice because I have deeply benefited from Intergral Christian Newtork‘s WeSpace Groups, Sunday Services, and free standing meditations. I think you will too.

This meditation was written by Paul Smith. You can find his excellent ‘Intergral Chistianity: The Spirit’s Call to Evolve’ on Amazon.

This practice can take from a few minutes to an hour or more. You can do one part or several, or all of it. I (Paul) often take about twenty minutes to do it all.

Set your intention to open to the four goals of Whole-Body Mystical Awakening:

(1) expanded heart consciousness,
(2) mystical oneness,
(3) the spiritual beings present with you,
(4)  windows of spiritual knowing.

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1.      Start with your Heart

Move your awareness from your head to your heart. This is not being aware of your heart but being aware from your heart. To help, you can tap on your head, then tap on down your temple, jaw, neck, and chest. Continue tapping on your chest until you sense you have moved to your heart space. You can also place your hands on your heart which can increase the energy there. Your heart space includes your chest, back, arms, and hands. You may also think of someone you love to help activate the love flowing from your heart.

Deep in your heart center is an inexhaustible flow of love which is always there, ready to radiate outward. You may feel warmth flowing from your heart and bliss flooding your being.

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2.     Treat your Feet

Move your attention to your feet, making sure your feet are planted firmly on the floor. You may want to stamp your feet or wiggle your toes to help your consciousness move there. Think of roots growing from your feet deep into the earth, anchoring you in your body and your body to the earth, even the whole material cosmos itself.  Draw up energy from this grounding and centering that comes these spiritual roots which connect you with the transcendent oneness of all divine material reality.

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3.     Chummy with your Tummy.

Draw that grounding energy on up to your gut, your spiritual womb. Residing here is our intuitive self, with the ability to understand or know something without conscious reasoning.

This is the home of your core self, your divine identity, which is accessed not by conceptualizing or thinking, but by intuition and sensation. Rest in your spiritual womb by simply being. Be aware of anything that emerges from this area of deep spiritual knowing.

Jesus said from here flows living water or the awakened consciousness of our divine identity (John 7:37-38). The gut deepens into transcendence as we experience not only our own divine identity, but that this identity is the one divine identity of all.

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4.     Spread to your Head

On the way up to your head, pause in your heart space to soak in your heart’s radiating love. Then move up into your head space. You may notice your mind is unusually calm as your carrying the grounding energy of your feet and womb and the radiant love of your heart with you into you head space. Rest in the cleared stillness there are long as you wish. If you wish, you can move up out of your head space, spreading into the vast, spaciousness there. This is the transcendence of pure consciousness that is the mystical realm of the infinite divine.

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5.      Impart your Heart

Move back down into your heart space, this time becoming aware of the spiritual presences that are with you. This can be the motherly-fatherly presence of God, the Living Jesus, and other spiritual companions such as Mary or other saintly presences who are there to comfort, encourage, and strengthen you. Let them hold you and touch your heart. You can sense their presence, converse with them, and receive from them.

Then let your heart flow out to others that come to your mind, sending the energy field of love out to them as healing, light, and blessing. Finally, let your heart expand to transcendent awareness as it enlarges and moves to hold all sentient beings in its blissful, loving embrace

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6.     Devotion in Motion

Finish with devotion in motion by reaching down to your feet with both hands and feel the energy move up through your body like a flowing geyser until your hands are raised high in the air. You are a geyser of love and healing shooting up through and from you. It flows out to the world and universe becoming a part of the Kosmic groove you and others are cutting in fabric of the cosmos, co-creating with God new pathways to the continuing evolution of creation.

AND RIVERS OF LIVING WATER SHALL FLOW FROM THEIR INNER SELF.   — JESUS


Body Centers of Spiritual Knowing

Whole Body Awakening
Whole Body Awakening

The deep feelings of the HEART are retrieved through our awareness moving into the heart center with the chest, arms, and hands in contact with one another.

Our body energy field is accessed with our awareness sinking down to our legs and FEET, grounding and drawing energy up from the earth.

Our intuition and core identity are accessed with our awareness resting in our gut and contact with our hands on our lower abdomen or SPIRITUAL WOMB.

The impressions, images, and words that come to the MIND are accessed through contact with the head and forehead.

These physical areas are entryways into the depths of being present and their associated ways of spiritual knowing.

For ICN’s audio file recording of this practice, click here.

Practice 72: Oneness on a Winter Night

Background: Today’s practice is a visualization which builds on some on oneness practices. For examples of more oneness practices, click here and here.

It will be helpful, before practicing to bring to have choosen a small group of people whom you feel very safe and comfortable around.

The Practice:

  1. Find a relaxing pose. If you can comfortably manage it, feet flat on the floot and spine upright are ideal.
  2. Release your worries, stresses and concerns with your next exhales.
  3. Inhale all the way down into your hips.
  4. Exhale feeling your belly draw closer to your spine.
  5. Close your eyes.
  6. See yourself– and your friends– in a clearing on a cold winter’s night. Your breath comes out in clouds and a light dusting of snow covers the ground. You are dressed warmly, comfortably. There is a single towering pine tree in the center of the clearing. The outskirts of the clearing is defined by smaller trees and shrubbery. It is a ways beyond you. The moon is so bright! It illuminates the clouds which a gentle wind keeps slowly creeping across the sky.
  7. Form a circle around that central tree. Take your friends hands. Someone squeezes, and that squeeze comes around the circuit like a pulse. See yourselves and your friends. Their are smiles here.
  8. As you breathe, breathe with your friends. Feel the way you are inhaling together. Feel the cold, invigorating you in the quiet. Feel the way you are exhaling together. This is a connection.
  9. Connect for a while, just this. Feeling the closeness on the winter night. Seeing your breath.
  10. Now, connect to the great tree in the middle. Your exhales are the trees inhales. Perhaps the cloud from someone’s breath even lands on a pine needle. there is a symmetry here. Breathing with your friends.
  11. Give most of the time you have remaining to this connection. When you are ready, gently squeeze the hands on your left and your right.

Discovering the Essence: How to Build a Spiritual Practice is coming in November. Click the link for a free preview and more information.

Exercise 71: Find your hope

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Background: Today’s practice is deeply inspired by Resmaa Menakem’sMy Grandmother’s Hands.‘  I am including it here because  this important book is something that everyone should be reading right now.  It is explores questions of race, white supremacy, and trauma by exploring where these things live in our bodies.  It is not easy work for an old white guy like me; but it is important work.  Contemplatives and those who love spiritual practice might find this approach to be a powerful one.  Each chapter features practices like this one.

To be honest, I am a little hesitant about sharing this practice here.  I think that this practice could have lots of positives not related to exploring racial trauma and white body supremacy.  And this is my concern: I would not want to co-opt and distract from this important work.  I am also aware and sensetive to the issues around white people stealing the work of black people without approprite credit and attibution.  The best I know how to do in this regard it to state again, emphatically, that regardless of your background or history Resmaa Menakem’s excellent ‘My Grandmother’s Hands’ should be on your reading list.

The Practice

  1.  Place your feet flat on the floor.  Wiggle your toes.
  2. Become aware of your skin.  Note where it is sitting under cloth and where it is exposed to the air.  Feel the textures and the temperatures, the moisture and movement of air.
  3. Note where you are sitting.  Feel the pull of gravity pulling you down and the support of your chair, cushion, or floor supporting you upward.  Note the softness or hardness of the places where you are back, butt, and legs touch whatever you are sitting on.
  4. Can you sense hope in your body?  Where is that hope living right now, at this moment?  Does it move or change with your breath?  Is there excitement living with your hope?  Anxiety?
  5. What specific desires come with finding this hope in your body: what is it that you are hoping for?  Healing?   Success?  Do you have hopes around racial trauma and moving past the hurts you have recieved or the hurt your actions have caused?
  6. Can you find any fear in your body?  Where is it?  Does it move or spread?  Does it feel growing and alive or dead and cut off?  Sit with your fear, for a moment.
  7. Explore the specifics of this fear to the extent that it is safe, wise, and kind to yourself to do so.  What is it that you are afraid of?  Does this fear imply anything about your relationship to future events?
  8.   Hold the hope and the fear.  Experience them both fully in your body.  Take your time with this step.  This is a microcosm for the experience of what it is to be human.
  9. Return to checking in with your body.  Notice the way your breath feels.  If you would like to continue but need a moment, take that moment, and then take another.  You can return to a focus on your body by checking in with your sensory experiences that are happening now: listen, for example, for three sounds in your environment.  Look around and name for things.  Take a deep breath and smell the air.  Inquire into your taste buds and see if there is a taste in your mouth.
  10. If you would like to continue, you can hold search for and hold other dualities.  Begin by choosing one item from the pairings listed below; (or, of course choose something not listed.)  Some pairings you might try: love/apathy; acceptance/anxiety; like/ dislike; joy/sorrow; admiration/disdain.
  11. To the extent you can, find where that first element lives in your body.
  12. Explore how it feels and moves within.
  13.  Identify some of the  specific ways that this might pop up in your life.
  14. Find the opposite in your body.
  15. Explore how the opposite feels and moves within.
  16.  Identify some of the specific ways that this might pop up in your life.
  17. Spend a moment just holding the both of these oppposites together.
  18.  If you wish, hold this pair as you return to an earlier pair, such as hope and fear.

 

Exercise 70: Naming (best as a contemplative walk)

Background-   this practice could be connected with a wide array of inspirations.

  • Mindfulness and many other Buddhist practice speak about the importance of noting the specifics of the situation we find ourselves in as noted by our senses. Sometimes this is described as noting the ‘thisness and thusness’ of where we find ourselves.
  • In the book of Genesis, Adam was given the task of naming things in the Garden of Eden.
  • Francis is known to have described the living and nonliving things around him with familial titles: for example ‘sister moon’ and ‘brother sun.’

 

This practice is ideally done as a contemplative walk.  A good contemplative walk carries a tension within it.  Of course safety is ultimately important.  Therefore, diverting some attention to an awareness of how to get home and ensuring that we don’t walk into an unsafe situation are very important.  Walking into an unsafe situation might be failing to look both ways before we cross a street.  It also might be making sure we don’t wander into neighborhood that is unsafe for us.

However, being too planful takes some of the power out of a contemplative practice.  I believe in something larger than us that will guide our steps when we are willing to cede control of our destination.  Even if I am wrong on that, it is clear that being too strategic and logical ends up giving over a certain measure of headspace over to the logical, planning side of our brain.  As a result, we end up not being as fully contemplative as we might have hoped for.

If a walk does not make sense for you right now, much of this practice can be applied to a more sedentary approach.   A practitioner might find value in applying this practice to a place they think they know very well.  It can be surprising the things we discover when we look at familiar surroundings with fresh eyes.  Alternatively, Finding a seat with unfamiliar surroundings can also bring new discoveries.

Before beginning the practice description, I would like to own and name the reality that this practice can feel a bit silly.  The internal monologue would look rather amusing if viewed out of context.  I believe that a little silliness if quite a powerful thing.  Most of us (including me) are entirely too grim and somber about our spiritual practice.

The Practice

1.  Begin a walk with a cultivated sense of purposelessness.

2.  Identify something in your field of vision.  Greet and name it.  (e.g. ‘hello tree with yellow leaves on the north side.’  or ‘Hi, fire hydrant with a rusty chain.’)  work at noticing and naming in a way that identifies the uniqueness of this one particular thing you are seeing.

3.  Note, name, and greet the next thing in your field of vision as you continue your walk.  The goal is to produce a nearly nonstop litany of the things you encounter.  If someone were to hear your thoughts, it might almost sound like a guided tour of the walk.

4.  As you continue the walk, see if you can apply it to sounds or smells.

5.  You can similarly greet feelings, thoughts and memories as they come up for you.

 

Exercise 69: Box Breathing

Background for 69A: Box breathing is a mindfullness practice.  It begins by identifying 4 points:  the inhale, the pause after the inhale, the exhale, and the pause after the exhale.  Practioners are invited to imagine a box and circle their attention around each side with each of the four parts of the breath.

Mindfulness offers up many tools.   I find these tools very useful in enhancing my experiences of other types of spiritual practice.  One of the most basic principles of mindfulness is to anchor ourselves in this present moment  with the information the 5 senses provide.  One of the challenges with this sensory data is to receive it in  a manner which is as concept-free as possible.

Thus, in mindfulness, it is  good start to notice the feeling of the breeze on my hand.  It is better to disengage my knowledge that it is a breeze and to simply tune in to the feeling on my hand.  It is even better than that to release my concept knowledge that I have a hand: the goal is to simply experience that sensation as something that is occuring.

It is powerful to attend to the breath for as long as we are able.  Perhaps that is just for a part of the inhale.  Perhaps we are able to stay fully in our breath for all 4 “sides” of the “box.”

Two versions of this practice are presented here.  It is worth being reflective on how the two different prescriptions for breath-lengths leave you feeling.

Practice 69A

  1.  Place the feet flat on the floor.  Find your breath.
  2. Inhale for a count of four.
  3. Pause for a count of four.
  4. Exhale for a count of four.  
  5. Pause for a count of four.
  6. Repeat steps 2-5.  This time, stay with the breath for as long as you can.  
  7. Repeat steps 2-5, imagining that each 4-count takes a finger to the end of a side of a box.  As you move on to the next corner of the box, you have entered a new part of the breath.
  8. Continue this 4-part 4 -count, either staying in the breath or imagining the box.  Note how this leaves you feeling.  After this reflection, you may wish to move on to practice 69B.

Background to 69B

It might be helpful to recall the shape of a trapezoid from your last geometry class.   download

For this practice, it’s helpful to envision a box of the shape shown above.  We could imagine that this box had legs of 3 feet.  We could imagine the smaller, upper base was 4 feet, and we could imagine that the lower, longer base was 5 feet.

Practice 69B:

  1.  Place the feet flat on the floor.  Find your breath.
  2. Inhale for a count of four.
  3. Pause for a count of  three.
  4. Exhale for a count of  five.  
  5. Pause for a count of three.
  6. Repeat steps 2-5.  This time, stay with the breath for as long as you can.  
  7. Repeat steps 2-5, imagining that each breath part covers the time it takes a finger to the end of a side of a box.  As you move on to the next corner of the box, you have entered a new part of the breath.
  8. Continue this pattern, either staying in the breath or imagining the box.  Note how this leaves you feeling.  This is your practice.  Please consider changing the lengths for a duration which is more comfortable.  One important thing is the regularity: choosing numbers and sticking with them.  Another important thing is the mere presence to the breath and attention to how that feels in the rest of the body.

Exercise 68: Sati/ Mindfulness meditation

Background:  This spiritual practice will introduce a few different approaches to staying present.  The overaching idea with mindfulness is to meditate by locating ourself in the present. One of the way that this is done is through recognizing when we are having having intrusive thoughts or sensations by simply and gently witnessing these: watching them come and go.  I find this powerful because identifying their coming and leaving is a way to remind myself that I am not the same as these thoughts, and as I do this I am shown that this is what the mind does– it thinks and feels things.

A second major feature of this practice is to locate the self with the physical sensations we are noticing now.  Most often these are the sensations of breath.

There are some related spiritual practices listed at this website.  I am sharing this practice to introduce a handful of new possibilities.  A few different possibilities are featured in each of the practices below.  I suggest trying each of them and then picking and choosing your favorite aspects of each of the practices below.

 

Practice 68A

  1.  Sit up in a way that is straight and comfortable.  See yourself as sitting on a seat between heaven and Earth.
  2. Close your eyes.
  3. Find your breath.  Pay attention to the abdomen: feel it pushing out with the inhales, and moving in, toward the spine, with the exhales.  
  4. Listen for a noise in your environment, when it comes up, notice how you can’t control it’s coming or coming.
  5. Return to your abdominal breathing.
  6. As thoughts or perceptions arise, gently notice these.  Observe how they are like the noises: they come and go.
  7. Return to noticing how the breath feels in your body.  
  8. Continue this process for the time you had alotted.

 

Practice 68B

  1.  Sit up in a way that is straight and comfortable.  
  2. Close your eyes.  Be aware that even with your eyes closed, you can still observe differences in the visual field.  Your eyes work even with the lids down.  Center yourself in this present moment by seeing what you see with the eyes closed.
  3. Find your breath.  
  4. As thoughts or perceptions arise, gently notice these.  
  5. Return to noticing how the breath feels in your body, or to that darkened visual field.
  6. Continue this process.

 

Practice 68C

  1.  Sit up in a way that is straight and comfortable.  See yourself as sitting on a seat between heaven and Earth.
  2. Close your eyes.
  3. Find your breath.  Pay attention to the place where the air comes in and out of the nostrils.  Feel the change in temperature and pressure as it comes in and out.
  4. How long can you be fully present, with no wandering of mind: the length of an inhale?  The length of the whole breath?
  5. As thoughts or perceptions arise, gently notice these.  Then return to being aware of the breath in the nostril.
  6. When the time you had set aside for this practice is complete, know that you can retun to this state, even for just a minute or two, through out the day.

Practice 68D

  1.  Sit up in a way that is straight and comfortable.  
  2. Close your eyes.
  3. Find your breath.  Pay attention to the subtle movement in the middle/side of the very lowest ribs.  Feel their slow movement as the lungs fill and empty.
  4. Listen for a noise in your environment, when it comes up, notice how you can’t control it’s coming or coming.
  5. With your next inhale, simply think ‘in.’  If you wish, in your mind’s gentle voice, you can hear this sound for the full length of the inhale: ‘iiiiiiiiiinnnnnnnnn’
  6. With your next exhale, simply think ‘out.’  If you wish, in your mind’s gentle voice you can hear this for the full length of the exhale: ‘oooouuuuutttttt.’
  7. As distractions arise– and they will– notice the distraction as it comes and goes, and then return to the naming of the inhales and the exhales.  
  8. Continue this process for the length of time you had decided on today.
  9.   When stressful and difficult moments through out your day arrive, return to being fully present for the breath.

 

 

Exercise 67: Tonglen for Times of Division and Strife

Background:  Sometimes I hover on the edge of paralysis; I am nearly overwhelmed.  Even while I hold these experiences I know that even this sensation is a symptom of my privilege.  I am a white person living in America during a time of racist police brutality, protests, and looting.  I have the luxury and means of working from home during a time of worldwide pandemic and mass unemployment.

There are players and perspectives in these events I easily emphasize with.  There are others are do not.   This morning, I had a very powerful experience of the Buddhist practice known as Tonglen.  I incorporated a few elements of metta, or loving-kindness meditation.  I have tried to reproduce this morning’s practice here.

Traditionally, Tonglen asks the practitioner to breathe in the suffering of a chosen person or group, and then to widen this circle of compassion.  I love tonglen for the ways it empowers me.  To recognize that my body can withstand and transform suffering is a wonderful thing.  Before starting this version there are a few things to think about.

It is likely going to be easy to find the group or person whose suffering you’d like to begin with.  I find it more difficult to find who I can widen that circle to.  Their is spriritual growth in rising to the challenge here or stretching the compassion muscles to someone who it is not easy and natural to feel compassion for.  However, we are limited and growing human beings.  If I am too ambitious about who I wish to widen my compassion to I come grinding to a hault.

Lots of powerful words have been written about the tension between action and contemplation.  My sense is that the goal here is to move us out of paralysis.  We can hold our compassion while moving forward in a certain direction which may not instantly and obviously be a win-win.  The goal here is not to come to terms with the idea that everyone is a little bit right.  Rather, the goal here is to hold the suffering of increasingly wide groups of people and move forward into the world decisively after having done so.

The Practice.

  1.  Place your feet flat on the floor.  Find your breath,.
  2.  Inhale deeply.
  3. Exhale deeply.
  4. Repeat 2 and 3 at least two more times.
  5. With the next inhale, breathe in heat, claustrophia, and suffering.
  6. With the next exhale, breathe out spaciousness, c6 atoolness, and joy.
  7. Repeat steps 5 and 6 at least two more times.
  8. With the next inhale, breathe in through your pores as well as your mouth or nose.  See, in your minds eye, the whole of your body taking in heat/claustrophobia/suffering.
  9. With the next exhale, breathe out through your pores as well as your mouth or nose.
  10. Repeat steps 8 and 9 at least two more times.
  11. Now, as you continue this pattern, let this suffering be specifically for you that you inhale.  Let it be your claustrophobia, heat, suffering.
  12. As you exhale, let it to be joy and spaciousness for you.
  13. Continue this for as long as feels productive.
  14. There is a group or person close to your heart.  As you continue this deep breathing, this breathing through the whole of the body, bring them to mind fully.   Picture what they might be wearing, how they might stand, what they would wearing.  Is their a distinctive sound of their voice?  A smell which might be associated with them?  “See” them with all your senses.
  15. Inhale their suffering.
  16. Exhale them peace.
  17. Can you go deeper into their experiences: the suffering of their life, or even across the generations?  
  18. Continue with this for as long as feels productive.
  19. Bring to mind a wider group.  Perhaps one that is challenging to feel for.  Picture them with all the living specificity you brought to mind earlier, when it was easier.  Exhale your judgements as you seek to make them clear in your mind.
  20. Inhale their suffering, closeness, heat with your whole body.
  21. Exhale them peace, openess, coolness with your whole body.
  22. Continue for as long as feels productive.
  23. Now, in your mind, bring the suffering together of both people/groups.  Inhale the suffering of both groups.
  24. Exhale peace to both.
  25. Continue.  When you are ready, progress to the next step.
  26. Can you widen your compassion further?  If so, take in the suffering of more people with your inhalations.  Exhale peace to this widened circle.
  27. Release this practice.  Sit wordlessly for a while.
  28. Now, sit with the tension between contemplation and action.  Explore in your mind which steps you are ready to take to physically change the world.  

Exercise 66: Mindful Eating

Background:   Mindfulness asks us to sit with our sensory experiences.  It recognizes that our ability to taste, touch, and smell does not have the ability to look to the future or the past.  Nearly anything can be approached this way.   But eating is a good place to begin, particurly for sevens.  When Enneagram lore identifies ‘gluttony’ as the sin of sevens, they are careful to point out that this means more than food.  But food is certainly a part of it!

This is a practice that can be done with incredibly tiny parts of food.  To anticipate the eating, for example, of a single M&M can be a joyous, delightful thing.

As written below, this practice assumes that you will have something prepared to eat.  But there is no reason to begin feeling present once the food is prepared.  Being slow and aware during the process of getting the food ready is a great way to be.

 

The Practice 

 

  •  Take three deep breaths: inhalations and exhalations.  Finding yourself here.
  • Experience yourself as existing in the center of a vast network of relationships, all of which collaborated to bring this food to you.  Consider the person who sold it to you, the person who stocked the shelves.  The shippers who transformed it.  The farms that grew it or the factory that packaged it.  Allow yourself a moment of grattitude for this network of relationships; widen it even further if you wish; consider the people who trained and supported the shipper, the sales people, the farmers., for example.
  • Behold the food that you are going to eat.  Seek to see it as something truly unique.  This is not just an example of whatever sort of food you are eating (i.e. it’s not just an apple; it is one particular apple.)  
  • Turn the plate so that you can view this from some other angle.  Seeking to discover something about the appearance of this thing.
  • Smell the food.  Make yourself present to this scent.
  • Place a small bite of the food in your mouth.  Explore this texture with your tongue.  Don’t bite into it yet.
  • Note the flavor and the texture of this thing.  See if this texture and flavor are  unifrom.
  • Now, bite into this food slowly.  Notice the ways it is ground between your teeth.  Be present to the tastes and the textures that change.  Allow this chewed food to land on your tongue.
  • Tune in to the ways that this slowly grows uniform in taste and texture.  Notice any changes in your body as it reacts to the tastes.
  • When it is time, swallow this bite of food.
  • If there is more of the food left, take a look at the portion that remains.  Note how the bite you took out of it.  
  • Smell the food again.  How has the taste changed?
  •   Be present to other changes in your body.  Does your belly began to feel full?  Is your throat dry?  What taste remains even with the food no longer in your mouth?
  • Repeat steps 6-13 until the food has been eaten.
  • Sit in a moment of grattitude for this food. 

 

 

Book of Grief, Gratitude and Love

Introduction

The world does not need another book which is quietly assured that you need to be more loving, grateful, or aware of your grief.  Prescriptions of this type have likely caused more problems than they have solved.

Most of us are quite ready to hear our faults when someone approaches us in the right way.  When we are approached and told that we ought to do this, or that, we are sometimes eager to do whatever it is we “should” have been doing all along.  

So we adopt whatever it is that is being pitched.  Praying more.  Morning affirmations.  Taking action in the world.  Giving longer hugs.  Eating more vegetables.

Certainly all of the above are good ideas for some of us.  Maybe most of us.  But if we begin them because someone told us to, we are likely to end them soon.  We are likely to feel betrayed when they don’t deliver an end to our hurts, disappointment, and loneliness.  We are likely to demonstrate a comparatively shallow level of commitments.  I can’t speak for you, but I can tell you something about the way my mind operates.  There is a thought, deep down:  If there is a problem for everybody, and this book offers a solution for everybody, even if I go only half way, I am better off than most everybody else.

Somehow, you ended up reading these words.  There was probably something in the title that connected with you.  But I would like to begin from a place of honesty.  It seems like that is the best indication that maybe this is something in these pages for you. It seems to me that most of the people I know have some struggles with grief, gratitude.  And these two are doorways into love. 

It is not easy to walk into grief.  To engage in practices that invite this experience in?  That feels like driving toward the foreboding clouds that threaten to unleash their fury at any second.  There is something primal within us that is whispering that this is a really bad idea.

My experience is that this opens up an experience of fullness.  It is good.  A life lived in this manner is not easier.  This introduction is not a condemnation of who you are and how you have lived.  You will not become morally superior to the people not engaging these practices no matter how thoroughly you master them.

 

This book did not come together in quite the same way as the other Faith-ing Project Guides.  It began with a sense that gratitude is an important thing and this area had not been covered in those other books.

Gratitude is incredibly important.  But it didn’t feel like a book of practices only focused on gratitude was the right way to go.  It needed a little something more than that.  And it was in a discussion with someone close to me that it was observed that there is a powerful relationship between grief and gratitude.  They seem, in a sense, like proverbial opposite sides of the same coin.

This felt mostly right.  It seemed like it was close to  perfect.  I spent a few days sitting with this possibility, the idea of creating a book of practices built around both of these experiences.  What I began to reflect on was that the thing that joined them together, the coin itself, is Love.

Grief, Gratitude and love.    Yes.  That seemed entirely right.  To begin with, love can only be experienced in the context of gratitude.  How could we love someone we are not thankful for?  At the same time, being thankful for a person (or a thing, or an experience) seems likely to lead to an experience of love.  Gratitude and love seem quite likely to lead to each other and quite difficult to imagine apart from each other

.  Yet, true love also inevitably leads to grief. All of us will die.  Everything will change.  A mature, reflective view of love is about making the choice that it is worth it, it will be worth it, and it will have been worth it.  If we live a contemplative life we enter into loving truly aware of the cost.

It seems that grief without gratitude is bitter.  Meanwhile, gratitude without grief is shallow.  They seem to need each other to make love a viable experience.  

I hesitate to call “grief” “gratitude” or “love”  emotions.  Each of them is more than that.  Each of these three characteristics is one of the defining qualities of humanity.  Each… even grief…. Are the things that makes this life worth living.

This book has been built with a section for each of these three important characteristics.  .  Each section will begin with a few opening remarks and then progress to two different types of spiritual exercises.  The first spiritual exercise is rather specific to the topic of the chapter.  

These exercises will come primarily out of the world’s great spiritual traditions.  I was not surprised, when I wrote this book, that so many of these reflect my Christian orientation.  It’s not that  I feel that Christianity is any better than the other great religions.  I expected to end up with lots of Christian practices because these are the practices I am closest to, the practices I am most qualified to share.

 I was a little surprised to discover how many come out of the Buddhist tradition.  In my head I knew that the Buddhists have a profound psychology and many excellent tools for being fully human.  As I wrote this book, I was reminded of this and experienced it first hand.

The second type of exercise within each chapter will be a bit more general.  Many of these exercises come out of the growing discipline known as mindfulness.  Mindfulness emphasizes an awareness of our present circumstances.  It often does this by stressing the importance of listening to the wisdom of the body. One major obstacle to gratitude, grief, and love is finding ourselves lost in the past or worried about the future. 

When we are out of the moment, stuck in the past or the future, it might look  like grief, gratitude, or love.  But it is not.    Grief, gratitude and love are experienced in the present.  This is why mindfulness, with its brilliant emphasis on our senses, is so critical here.  When we find ourselves looking, listening, feeling, smelling and tasting, we are in the present moment.  Our senses do not have memories.  Nor do they have hopes, dreams, or fears about the future.  They can only report what is happening now. This is key to the work we are doing.

  I am sure that all of us will have an area we are more comfortable with than the others.  Many of us might feel comfortable expressing our love but have not worked through our grief.  Some of us might feel that gratitude comes naturally but love does not.  Though this is to be expected, I am certain that  an over emphasis on any one of them, at the expense of the others, is an unwise, unbalanced way to live.   The area that seems to be the least attractive to you is likely the one you need the most.   My hope for you, reader, as you read this book is that you will carry each with a full awareness.

This full awareness is an important thing. 

Before we dive into the sections presenting the practices around gratitude, grief and love, it is worth wondering, just how should this book be used?  Dozens of practices are presented here.  It is clearly not feasible to regularly maintain a practice comprised of all these exercises…  Yet, the whole point of what we are doing here is precisely that: to assist you in building your spiritual practice.

Consider this book a catalog of options that are open to you.  Just as you would not buy all the shirts in the clothes  section of a department store, just as nobody would buy every single shape of pasta available at their local grocery store, you will probably not build a spiritual practice out of every single practice in this book.

You would probably take a look at most of the shirts in the section of the department store.  Similarly, it is wise to examine all the practices contained in this book.  You might pile up a number of shirts and bring them with you into a dressing room.  Accordingly, I hope you will try most of the practices in this book.  After this process you might buy several shirts.  Some you will keep forever.  Others you might try out but ultimately  return.

I hope that you try out many practices from this book.  You might “return” some.  You might keep others, incorporating them into your long-term practice.

My sense is that when a person is ready to settle into a spiritual practice, it is important to commit to which specific practices will be used.   Ideally, the practice would incorporate no more than three.    It does not seem to be helpful to switch quickly and easily between practices within the same session.  Rather, you might dedicate Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays to one practice.  Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays might be reserved for a different practice.  Sundays might be left for both practices.  Or neither.

One of the great things about spiritual practices is how flexible they are.  Lots is gained by doing them solo.  There are other benefits by doing them in community.  They can be done almost anywhere by anyone.  Of course, all of these practices “work” by simply reading them and then “doing” them.  However, sometimes, it is preferable to have someone directing you through them.  Many of the meditations here are available as audio files at https://faithingproject.com/audio-files-associated-with-publications-of-the-faith-ing-project/

 

Let us begin.  There is nothing more important than love.  And love is built through gratitude and grief.  

 

Gratitude

Gratitude is often described as a spiritual practice.   There is a way in which this is strange.  It is not often that we hear other mental states like happiness, sadness, frustration, or joy pitched as spiritual practices.

However, it is not always natural to think about the things that we have to be grateful for.    The things that make us angry are easy to notice, and if we are excited about the things that make us happy are probably near the top of our minds.  It seems that when someone suggests gratitude as a spiritual practice, what they are really suggesting is that we maintain an awareness of the things that we have to be thankful for.  This isn’t always easy, of course.  If we were rational creatures, the things that we have enjoyed for the longest would be the things we are most thankful for.  We are not rational, though.    These things that stay with us across the years are so easy to overlook.  We come to forget that we are not owed these things that we have had for so long.  And they can be the most difficult to release when it is time to let them go.  

The person who experiences physical health for many years may not know how to be sick.  The person who is wealthy for much of their life is the most surprised when this wealth goes away.  The person given a deep and passionate love is the most lost without this person.

When we experience health, wealth, or love for long periods of time, we increasingly lose touch with what it is like to be without these things.  Perhaps we even begin to feel entitled to them.

Furthermore, sometimes the negative makes such a huge impact.  It can blot out the positive utterly.  Making a concerted effort to remember the good things that happened is not easy.  I had an interesting lesson in this.  During the 9-5 work day, I am a Special Educator.  I work with emotionally challenged kids.  Sometimes, there is just one very hurt child who can make my life very, very difficult.

 One of the aspects of the kind-of programs I work with is that students often have a sheet where we monitor and rate their behavior.  A thing I have learned over the years is that there are many days where I am sure every single student has been at their absolute worse.  When I take a look at the kids’ point sheets, I am often shocked.  I will generally note that one, perhaps two students had a very difficult day.  The vast majority of the kids might have actually had a great day.  It is difficult to remember this, though, in the moment.  In the middle of a rough day,  the excellent behavior of nearly everybody is overshadowed by the difficult behavior of a small number of kids.

This is something most of us intuit.  I saw it quantified.  In many cases, I scored the point sheets of the kids who had a pretty good day.  Yet, at the end of the day I was still surprised that most of my students did pretty well.  

  Sometimes we need a reality check.  Sometimes we think that everything is going badly.  Practices which help us focus on the reality we are living– in other words, practices that build our gratitude– can be critical because they give us that reality check.  

This does not minimize the challenging parts.  I have worked with kids who want to do very, very bad things to me and to others.  There is no need to sugarcoat this.  But it is helpful to realize that my whole class is not the problem; similarly, we can have very difficult aspects of our lives.  It is helpful to be reminded that very difficulty aspects do not mean that everything is falling apart.

It seems worthy to aim to feel gratitude nearly all of the time.  However, it is not a worthy goal to aim for a sense of gratitude about all aspects of everything.  Their is a cheap, easy, destructive mockery of gratitude that can lurk within us.  This pretender wants to invalidate righteous anger.  It  wants to gloss over the hurts done to us.  In the end, it can leave us with a diminished sense of our own value. We can be left with a thought that goes something like this: “It’s ok that they hurt me.  It was only me.”

Authentic gratitude does not operate this way.  It leaves us free to feel angry, or not.  It leaves us free to defend ourselves and the ones we love.  It deepens our sense of the value of many things, including ourselves.

  The practices in this chapter are ones that help us notice the things that we have.  They remind us that we are not entitled to them.  They encourage us to live in the knowledge of how wonderful they are. 

Background to the Examen

The Examen was introduced by St. Ignatius.   Overall, the idea is to look back over a certain period– such as a day– and to consider where our consolations and desolations were.  Consolations are the places we can see God working.  Desolations are the place where God does not seem to be present.

One of the things that I love about The Examen is that it always challenges me.  My first temptation is to think God is moving in the things that were easy and enjoyable.  God is not present in the things that are difficult and hard.  But when I look at it carefully and honestly, the easy stuff is often rather fluffy.  It has no lasting value or meaning.  Conversely, the difficult stuff is often the things that leads to growth.

The three different forms of the examen presented here have some things in common.  These are practices which ask us to look back.  There are a wide variety of ways to look back at a period.  One is to begin in the moment and work backward from it.  Another is to begin 24 hours ago and work toward this moment.

Sometimes I find it helpful to break up the preceding day into three 8-hour intervals.  This method can easily be incorporated into the section of each of the following practices that asks us to reflect back on our lives.

As I share this practice with people, one of the things that has amused me to learn is that there seems to be two types of people in the world.  One type of person has difficulty breaking yesterday up into 3 8-segments.  The other person simply can not understand why breaking up yesterday into segments is all that difficult.

If you are in that former group, this section is for you.  Let’s practice breaking yesterday up into 3 8-segments before you begin the practice so that it won’t be distracting when it is time to actually do the practice.

Take a look at the time right now.  The furthest you will go back is to this time yesterday.  This time yesterday is where you will begin.  I am writing these words at 7:30 PM on a Saturday.  If I were to do an Examen right now, I would begin with 7:30 PM on Friday.

Next, add 8 hours to the time it is now.  This will outline the length of your first period to consider.  Eight hours after 7:30 means that I will end that first stretch at 3:30 in the morning.  (7:30-12:30 is 5 hours; 12:30-3:30 is 3 hours.  5 + 3 =8)  Much of that first period will be time when I was asleep.  That is ok.  I can think about my sleep last night.

The middle section begins where the first section ends; eight hours after this time yesterday.  In my case, that middle segment will begin at 3:30.  I will find the end of this segment by adding 8 hours to this time.  3:30 + 8 hours = 11:30.

The final section begins where the middle section ends.  My final section begins at 11:30.  Eight hours after that time brings me to 7:30, the time I started my Examen.

There are a couple things worth considering about either form of examen before we move on to them.  The first is that the more sensory the recollection is, the more vivid this time will be.  If I try to remember the feel of the air on my skin, and the texture of my clothes, and the pressure of a seat beneath me, and the sounds I heard and the smells in the air and the taste of food and drink, I will be more effectively returned to the events of yesterday.

The second consideration is that there is nothing magical about a 24 hour period.  You might do an Examen on a period of a couple hours or a couple years or anything in between.  Whatever time you choose, do your best to relive it chronologically, beginning with the longest-ago and concluding with the most recent.

Examen I

  1. Begin to find your center and place your feet flat on the floor.  
  2. Breathe and relax, as best you can.
  3. When you are ready, bring the last 24 hours to your mind.  Continue to breathe slowly, in through the nose and out through the mouth.  Begin by reliving where you were 24 hours ago.  Gradually, bring yourself through the last day of your life.  Do your best to deeply engage your senses as you relive this day; feel the events on your skin, hear them, taste them, even recall the smells.
  4. Consider your desolations:
    1. What are you least thankful for?
    2. Where can’t you see God?
    3. What seems to be moving you away from God?
  5. Release your desolations by breathing slowly and calmly.
  6. Consider your consolations.
    1. What are you most thankful for?
    2. Where can you see God?
    3. What seems to be moving you toward God?
  7. Release your consolations by breathing slowly and carefully.
  8. As you consider the last 24 hours in their fullness, are there any things you would like to consider: was God, perhaps moving in things you initially labelled ‘desolations?’  Is it possible that God was not present in things you initially labelled ‘Consolations’?
  9. Release the word-based part of the practice.  Enjoy a moment with God.

A Sample from “Guide to Building Your Spiritual Practice: Making Contemplative Practices Work For You.”

Introduction

When somebody wants you to do something, it all boils down to a couple of simple questions:

Why should I do that?

How do I do that?

So let’s get straight to it.  There is something I think you should do. I think you ought to have a spiritual practice.  By this I mean that  I think meditation and other contemplative actitvies ought to be a part of your life.  I have a sense about one effective way to do this.  I built my own spiritual practice and helped countless others do the same, through my website, The Faith-ing Project, dozens of email explorations, and a handfull of books.

 These practices lead to a way of living in the universe that changes everything.  In some ways, it’s analogous to living healthily.  On one level, living healthily might be defined as  doing the right exercises and eating the right foods.  But of course, it’s not really about the specific diet or exercise.  Exercise and healthy eating are gateways that give us access to living longer and feeling better.  

It’s worth noticing that there are lots of healthy ways to eat.  There are many effective physical fitness exercises.  After a person learns a few basics, they are prepared to begin choosing meals and exercises that are best for them.  It is not different when it comes to building a spiritual practice.

In this book, I will do my best to explain why a person ought to build a spiritual practice. 

And I will do my best to explain how a person could build a spiritual practice.

This book is organized this is like a sandwich.  The bread?  That’s the question of “why.”  I will address the question of “why” at both the beginning and the end of this book, much as a sandwhich has bread at the top and the bottom.  I will do this because the question of ‘why’ is a complicated one.

As a person builds her spiritual practice, she might, early on, answer that question in a certain way.  The opening of this book will deliver some introductory answers to that question.  It will hopefully deliver on some reasons to get this process started.

The bottom piece of bread will delve a little deeper.  It will explore some answers to the question “why” that I personally  would not have been able to come up with when I first started down this path.  Some of these will be an explanation of who I am becoming and how I view the world.  In some cases it might be hard to see this stuff at all.  I hope that by the time we get there, I have earned a little trust from you.  It might be that you will take my word for it on some of these things.

(I will probably have lots of this stuff wrong by the way.  I imagine if I wrote this book at some point further along in my journey, my ways of looking at the “why” will be quite different.)

Of course, a couple pieces of bread are pretty boring without something to go between them.  And it would be a bit of a tease if I shared with you why I think you ought to do a thing with out explaining how it is that you ought to do it.  So in the middle of this book, you can expect to find an exploration of how you can build a spiritual practice.

This exploration will address some things that are relevant to nearly every kind of practice.  It will also feature a brief exploration of a number of different spiritual exercises a person ought to consider.  I don’t think your spiritual practice should look exactly like my spiritual practice.  It also shouldn’t look like your neighbors, your spouses, or your parents. 

I will do the best I can at exposing you to a number of different possibilities.  But humanity has been at this for thousands of years.  This book is a place to begin.  It is the very first steps.   I will offer you a few observations about where and how I think these practices might be effective.  But mostly, you will learn what works for you by trying them out. 

After you take these first couple steps, you might take a third and a fourth step with the other Faith-ing Project Guides or website.  But this is still just the first few steps.  I hope, sincerely, that you go deeper.  There will be truths I fail to convey.  There will be critical details I miss.  As you begin to discover the practices that work for you, I hope that you will explore the rich and varied sources that inspired my attempts at potraying them here.

Before we go too much further lets spend a few minutes with some of the words that are likely to pop up along the way.  These are words that are often used in these kind of endeavors.  It is probably helpful to understand a little something about how I am using them.

Let’s begin with one of the more general terms: contemplation (and of course, all of the related forms of the word like contemplative.)  I was thrilled, recently, to discover that the term ‘contemplation’ is related to the word temple.  It is obvious once it is pointed out.  Most of the letters are sitting there, right in the middle of the word.  The prefix, “con” means “with.”  On a basic level, then, “contemplation” is related to the way a person might look at the world from inside a temple.  The wonderful thing is that the temple is already within us.

More specifically, I will use the word “contemplation” to refer to a broad category of ways of seeing the world, a way of progressing, a way of seeing.  There are many ways to contemplate.   Two that concern us here are prayer and meditation.

I will use the word “prayer” to mean certain types of contemplative activities which are more or less connected to connection with something bigger than us.  Prayer can be a kind of conversation.   Most forms of prayer assume a divine listener.  A spirit-entity we might (or might not) call God.

I will use the word “meditation.” to mean certain types of contemplative activities which are less word-dependent.  Often, in meditation, there will be no assumption of a force above and beyond us.

In a book focused on these two things, it can grow monotonous to use the same 2 words over and over again.  As a result, I will sometimes use words like “spiritual exercise” or “practice.”   But the word “practice” is a little tricky.  I will follow the conventions of language and use it sometimes to mean one specific set of things to do, a form of meditation and prayer.  Other times, it has a wider meaning.   A practice is also an ongoing comittment to do the best we can.  A medical doctor or therapist might discuss their private practice.  As a Special Education Teacher, I might refer to my practice, too.  By this, I might mean the collection of all the things I do in my class to ensure that students are learning and being safe.

In a wider sense, then, when we discuss a Spiritual Practice we mean something broader than one particular method of meditation or prayer.  A spiritual practice in this broad sense is what the title of this book refers to.  It is our ongoing promise to ourselves, our plan of which specific prayers and meditations we will engage in on a daily basis.

It is worth noting that reading this book is a bit like dipping a toe into the ocean.  This is a vast and wonderful territory.  There are some practices we will not explore at all because they are not the sort of things easily expressed in a book.  Many of these are spiritual practice which help us to remember the body: dancing, yoga, drumming, and art for example.

There are other spiritual practices which are neither meditation nor prayer.  Fasting, giving, and many forms of worship are also  spiritual practices which I hope you will explore.  But they will not be covered here, either.

In fact, even the practices we begin to explore here will only be introduced briefly.  I hope that the brief introductions made here lead to a long standing relationship.  Practicing these every day will lead to a deeper relationship.  So will going to the source of these practices and exploring them in their spiritual context.

And so if the time we spend together on this journey is short of long, I am thankful for your time and trust on this part of it.  Let’s begin with the question of why a person ought to build a spiritual practice at all.

The First Why

Let’s take a look at some reasons we might want to build a spiritual practice. 

Last chapter, I shared the idea that a spiritual practice is a regular comittment to meditating and praying.  At this point, it’s probably wise to take a closer look at this idea.  It is all well and good to throw around those words.  But it is worth wondering what this all actually means.

What that means is this: you should dedicate yourself to at least half an hour a day of doing nothing.  I say that with my tongue only a little bit in my cheek. 

In the west, we often throw around words like “meditation.”  These words have a sort of mystique about them.  We can say them and feel a little bit of pride in ourselves.  In the east, the words they sometimes use is the language’s equivalent to simply “sitting.”  No big ideas or navel gazing.  Just sitting.

This is not as easy as it sounds.  There are lots of ways to do it.  Some of these different ways of sitting lead to certain positive results.  Others lead to other positive results.  Some are good for nearly anybody.  Others are good for only a certain type of person. 

We will explore these different options soon enough.  The bulk of this book will be a survey of several different types of meditation and prayer.    But let’s begin with a broad understanding of the goal.  What we are talking about here is slowing down, releasing pretty much everything.  Eventually, getting up to at least half an hour a day of it.

I am sure there are lots of things in your life that sound like they would be better to do than nothing.  I am sure that the millions of different ways we entertain ourselves, the countless ways we want to be productive seem like much better choices than sitting.

This, then, brings us back to the “why.”  Why would we want to do nothing when there are so many good things we could be doing? 

This discussion of the “why” is going to be rather abstract and theoretical if we don’t root it in the actual practice of sitting.  So before we take a deeper look at the question of “why.”  I wonder if you might indulge me.  Let’s give our first practice a try before we proceed.

 

Practice #1: Simply Breathing

 Preparation:  This practice is very, very simple.  But before we begin, I would like to ask you a question: How long could you comfortably sit and do nothing?   Perhaps it is only a minute.  Perhaps it is thirty.  However long you choose, could you try and push yourself?  Would it be possible to add just a few more minutes onto whatever total you just decided?

 

  •  Create a calming space.,  Set your phone to ‘do not disturb.’  Light a candle if you would like.
  • Place your feet flat on the floor.  Sit in a manner that is upright but not uncomfortable.
  • Inhale, through the nose if possible.
  • Exhale through the mouth.
  • With the next inhale, give some attention to really filling up the lungs.  Place your hand on the belly.  Feel the movement outward of your hand.
  • Exhale, feeling the belly moving in toward the spine.
  • Continue for the time you have allocated for this practice today.

 

 

 Some final introductory throughts of ‘Why.’

I am of two minds about simplicity of practice.  There is a way in which our mission is accomplished right here.  With this simple 7-step series of instructions.

This practice accomplishes a tremendous number of things.  One way that we might begin to explore the “why” of spiritual practice is to take a careful look at what we are accomplishing here.  Perhaps the most important thing we are doing here—perhaps the most important “why”  —  is that we are facing our fears and worries head on.  We are no longer running.

Almost every single thing we do is part of a huge pattern of denial and fear.  We have been taught explicitly and implicitly to keep moving.  To run from the fears that are chasing us.  To drown out the voices that are whispering to us.  We fill up our schedules.  We turn on the radio. 

We are so very afraid of silence and stillness.

This is a surprising statement for many.  But to anyone who wants to resist this reality, I have a very simple question:  If we are not afraid of silence and stillness, why is it so very difficult to sit quietly for any kind of length of time at all? 

The glory of facing our fears by sitting with them is just this: we suddenly realize that there is actually nothing they can ever do to us.  In fact, it is the denial of our fears are dangerous.  Some of our fears are things we can do nothing about, but our failure to face them is what makes them grow large in our hearts.  Other worries are things we can do something about.  But we can only take action if we have stopped running long enough to identify just what they are.

Closely connected to this fear is the message that we must be productive at all times.   By sitting, we (ironically) take a stand against this message.  It is one thing to say, “I am more valuable than the things I produce.”  It is another to actually take a period to stop producing.

If this is hard for you, you might find some solace in the possibility that this is a win-win.  Anecdotal reports, research, and wisdom from the world’s spiritual tradition all agree: a time of rest is vitally important.   There are many quotes from many directions which are variations on the theme “On a normal day, I meditate (or pray) for an hour.  On the days when I know I am going to be really busy, I meditate (or pray) for two hours.”  At least one of the things meant by these quotes is this: when we take a moment to be non-productive, we end up more than compensating for the so-called lost productivity.  When we return to our work, we end up being much more productive.

  The final “why” we are going to consider for now is the quieting of the mind.  Our brains produce a cacophony of noise.  The job of this organ is to think.  From a certain vantage point, it is very good at this.

There is a limit to the usefulness of our thoughts, though.  Especially when we stand in the middle of too many of them.  Like a wise man standing in a crowd, our best thoughts can get drowned out from the babble coming from all the others.  There are many sorts of things our thoughts don’t help us solve.  There are some sorts of things that our thoughts in fact make worse.

There are many things in our minds which are difficult to notice when our thoughts are taking center stage.  We have feelings, of course.  These feelings are valuable guides as we become aware of them.  Our mind is also where we become aware of bodily sensations.  Sometimes this awareness is important on a sheerly physical level.  We notice that our heel is sore and we need new shoes.  We note a growing pain in our belly which requires medical intervention.  But more than this, the body has its own wisdom.   When we turn down our thoughts we tune into the things that the body is trying to tell us: the tension in our shoulders says, “don’t trust this person.”  The quickening of our breath tells us that we were angry about something we aren’t having an easy time of owning.  It is easy to miss these signals when the babble of our brains is uncontested.

Those of us who believe in something greater than us—call it God for lack of a better, more inclusive term—are generally aware that God speaks in a still, quiet voice.  It can be difficult to hear this voice sometimes.  When our brain is busy over producing, it can be even more difficult to truly discern what is coming from us and what comes from elsewhere.

There are a few common misconceptions to clear up before we move from the “why” to the “what.”  The first common misconception is that the brain is bad and thoughts are not helpful.

Collectively and individually, we owe our brains and thoughts quite a lot.  We could not be where we are without them.    Our brain is like a hammer.  Our thoughts are like nails.  There are lots of things that hammers and nails are good for.  But a hammer and nails can’t do everything.  They can’t turn screws.  They can’t saw boards in half.  The situation we find ourselves in is as if we have gotten very good at hammering and have now begun to try to use the hammer to solve all of our problems.  It simply won’t work.

A related misconception is the idea that we are trying to turn all of our thoughts off when we meditate.  This is not possible.  Many methods of meditation employ one device or another when intrusive thoughts arise.  This leads practioners to believe that the goal is to use these to eradicate all thoughts.  When the thoughts continue to arise, the natural result is to experience feelings of frustration or even anger that it is “not working.”  Or worse yet, to see the self as a failure at it.

These reactions create a viscious circle.  They are rooted in a common misunderstanding of what we are trying to do. If you are engaged in a practice which asks you to use this or that device whenever thoughts arise, just give yourself a mental pat on the back for doing it correctly.  Appreciate the opportunity to dismiss the thoughts. 

Your mind will wander.  That is what it does.  It might be a few seconds.  It might be most of the time you have devoted to your practice.  When you find this is happening, return to the practice without hard feelings to yourself.  As time goes by, this will become more of a habit.  In a sense, it becomes easier. 

One of the biggest realizations I have contended with recently is the profound gulf between “simple” and “easy.”  My tendency is to view these two things as one and the same.  But this is a great counter example.  Meditation is a very simple practice.  It is not, for most of us, easy.

 

The how.

Something stirred you to buy this book.  And you read through the section on why you might build a spiritual practice.  So it seems like we ought to take a look at how you will do it.

It is quite a lot like dating.  Or choosing a job.  Or selecting your favorite pizza toppings.  The first step is to discover what is out there.  The second step is to select what is right for you.

            I suspect this will be a bit more involved than choosing your favorite pizza.  Perhaps it will be a bit less complex than choosing your vocation.  But in the broad strokes, it begins the same: read the menu (or consider all the potential people you could date.)  Order the first pizza.  (Or ask a person out on a date.)  Reflect on what went well and what didn’t go well about your decisions.

            On a more specific level:  I would like to recommend you enter a time of playing the field, spiritually speaking.  It is important to commit to the idea of trying new practices.  The end game here is to select just a few.  These will form the backbone of your spiritual practice.  As time goes by, this regimen might shift and evolve.  You are not committed forever.  But a few things are worth noticing before we proceed further.

            The first is that real spiritual growth has been achieved by people who had access to only one spiritual practice.  It is entirely possible that those with out many resources have achieved more than those of us with access to dozens or even hundreds of spiritual practices.

            The danger and temptation of too many practices is that we can hide behind the bells and whistles.  The real growth happens when we face the monotony, fear, and baggage of our lives.  Spiritual practice can become an ego game.  We tell ourselves we are growing and facing our issues.  But right when things begin to get uncomfortable, we put a new, different, exciting spin on the process.  We lose ourselves in the minutia of the practice we just have switched over to.

This is most of the reason I advocate so strongly for the end game of settling into a schedule of practices.  It is good to explore what is out there.  It is also good to commit, to settle in and dedicate ourselves to those which work best.

            This selection process is no easy thing.  It is likely that the most challenging practices are the best for us.  Just as it is difficult to choose the things we need the most (from a nutritional standpoint) at a buffet, it is difficult to commit to those practices which are the best for us.  It is tempting, sometimes, to choose the ones which are the easiest and the most pleasant.  The ones which leave us feeling pleasantly buzzed, which leave us feeling competent and profound and spiritual.  

            Even if we avoid this trap, we can so easily fall into the shadow of this ego game.  We can choose things with an almost masochistic fervor, selecting the things which are difficult and unpleasant as if this makes us worthy of some sort of spiritual extra credit.

            These struggles are compounded by the sad reality that we often times we are not particularly good at knowing what practices will work well for us over the long term.  Just as we can grow infatuated with a person that is not a good long term decision for us, we can try and commit to a spiritual practice that we have no future with.

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