Category Archives: Spiritual Exercises

Exercise 63: And now!

Background:  I suspect that the contents of this practice were inspired by James Finley’s understanding of Thomas Merton’s words, as expressed here.

This practice will ask you to relive a stressful experience.  It is wise to begin to think about that now.  Please practice discretion and self care as you select an event.  There is no need to choose something to distressing.

The Practice:

  1.  And now, bring to mind the feeling in your body at times of stress and busyness.
  2. And now, in your imagination, place yourself in a general sort of situation that might cause this feeling.  A meeting at work.  A difficult class.  An unwanted confrontation.  A procedure you would prefer to avoid.  Furnish your imagination with sights, sounds, and smells.
  3. And now! make it real.  Place yourself in an actual event like this that you recently experienced it.  Continue to use your senses.  Linger on this experience if you can.
  4. And now!  see a toddler.  The child is at play.  But the child is serious about, it too.  There are toys before the toddler.  This child is holding them carefully, turning them over, feeling them, listening to the sounds they make.  The child’s parents are sitting in a love seat.  The smile of the child’s father is only in his eyes.  His mother smiles with her lips though.  The parents are adoring the child.  Watch this scene for as long as you want.
  5. And now!  The toddler is you.  And you are the toddler.  All the things that felt so serious and important are the explorations the child was making into the world around themself.
  6. The mother-father on the love seat is God.  You can climb up there and sit between them, if you wish.  They will help you climb up.

 

Exercise 62: Being held by Silence

Background: This is a modified version of a practice which appears in Richard Rohr’s Just This.  

Their is much of value in the first several steps of this practice.  It might be that you are ready to work through to steps 9-11.  However, don’t rush into it.  It might take weeks, months, or even years.   The first 8 steps are quite a powerful practice on their own.

The Practice:

  1.  Place your feet flat on the floor.
  2. Inhale.  Exhale.
  3.  Rest in the Silence.
  4. When you are ready, feel embraced by her.  Let the Silence flow over you.
  5. As sounds or distracting thoughts threaten to disrupt your practice, realize that the silence still exists, beneath the distractions.  Look for the silence beneath these things which rise up.  All that happens comes out of silence and will sink back into it.
  6. Inhale Silence.
  7. Exhale Silence.
  8. Continue to be embraced by it.
  9. At some point, you may just be ready to shift your vantage point.  This step is the optional one:  Shift the seat from which you see the world.  It began in the head, with thinking.  Feel this vantage point move down the physicality of your body.  Let yourself reside in the heart, now.  See the world from this place.
  10. Continue to dwell in the silence and bring it in.
  11. You will know that you are authentically occupying the heart space when you experience a clear vastness.
  12. When you are ready, release this practice.  Sit in a time of wordless wonder.

Exercise 61: All Shall Be Well

Background:  Julian of Norwich is responsible for one of the most famous phrases in all of mysticism, “All shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”  In her vision this is said by Jesus.  He is responding to her distress.  She states that if God had just stopped sin from happening, then “all should have been well.”

Jesus response is that sin is necessary.  But it doesn’t matter.  And that’s when he gave Julian the phrase which she then gave the world: “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

It seems that the phrase has lots of resonance with those who do not know the wider context.  It certainly appealed to me before I researched it.  I like knowing the full story though, because it helps me to understand part of the appeal.

The Jesus of Julian’s vision uses her very own language.  It is almost as if she says “Things were supposed to be good.”  And that response is so very affirmative and over the top, that it puts it to shame.  It is a little bit like the contrast between saying “he is risen.” and “he is risen indeed.”  The second statement goes further than the first.

It seems like the appeal of this statement is in the promise that in the widest possible view, the outcome of everything will be so much better than we could have possibly hoped.

The Exercise.

  1.  Place your feet flat on the floor.
  2. Sit straight and comfortably.
  3. Inhale.
  4. Exhale.
  5. With the next inhale, think “All shall be well.”
  6. With the next exhale, think “And all shall be well.”
  7. With the next inhale, think “And all manner of things shall be well.”
  8. exhale.
  9. Repeat steps 5-8 for most of the time you have to devote to your practice today.
  10. When you are ready, release these words and sit in a time of wordless union,

Exercise 60: To Begin a Journey

This practice originally appeared in the book Contemplating Lent.

An Audio version of this practice is available below:

Background: Visualizations are journeys that begin with the words written by someone else.  Often, these words are not much more than a setting.  The most successful experiences I have had with visualizations are the times I accessed some child-like imagination and playfulness and allowed myself to go beyond where those written words would have taken me if I had just stuck with the script.  Like most spiritual practices, it is wise to begin a visualization by reading through the entire description to get a big picture about what, specifically, is going to happen.  After that first read through, I will then engage the practice.

After reading through the whole thing, I recommend rereading a few sentences, then picturing what they describe.  Taking the suggestions about sensory input is a very important part of the process.  Do not rush through experiencing the temperatures, textures, tastes, and sounds of these words.   If your imagination takes you some where new, continue to ask yourself what it feels, smells, and sounds like where you are.

This visualization is written in a narrative format.

Today’s visualization is rooted in the fact that Jesus’ baptism occurred just before his time in the desert.  Great journeys are often begun in a ritual such as this one.  I hope that today’s visualization commemorates the beginning of your Lenten journey.

 

The Exercise:

Find yourself sitting at a table on the shore of a beautiful lake.  It is almost uncomfortably warm.  But a gentle breeze comes in carrying dampness and cooling it to a nearly perfect temperature.  The sky is so very blue.  If you would like, loved ones are nearby.  They do not have to be.

            You get up and look to the stone staircase.  This lead down and into the lake.  Over and around these steps is an elaborate gate, a sort of trellis.  Vines and flowers are woven into it.  The grass is soft under your bare feet.  You walk to the gate and open it. 

            The first several steps are above the water line.  The stones are smooth, but much firmer than the grass.  At the third step you find yourself ankle deep.  The water is only a bit of a shock.

            On the fourth step you look up to meet the gaze of a kind teacher.  It might be someone you know.  It could be Jesus.  The person might not be alive now.  And yet, they are here with you.  The teacher smiles.  You smile.  You are knee deep, now, in the refreshing water.

            When you are chest deep, you are next to the teacher.  The teacher’s arms are firm.  You trust them as you lean back and are, lowered all the way into the water.  There is some fear.  It is unnatural to be underwater, trusting in another.  The teacher, of course, lifts you back up. 

            “This is my wonderful child.  I am well pleased in them.”  Where are those words coming from?  You cannot be sure.

            This strange lake does not get deeper than this.  You are not meant to go back out the gate you came in, today.  Walk across the lake.  The teacher will come with you while you are in the water.  He might speak to you.  You might hear the words the teacher says. 

            This is the beginning of an adventure.  You will return to this shore you set out from.  But not today.  Eventually you reach that far end of the lake.  What waits for you there?  Will the teacher come with you?  Continue this visualization if you wish.

Contemplating Lent (1)

 

Exercise 59: Breathing This Breath With God

This practice originally appeared in our recent Email Exploration, “God Breathed.”  It brings together the concepts in exercise 58 and in exercise 49

Background: There are two important realities to hold on to with today’s practice.  Both of these have been explored in past emails.
The first is that God breathes in us, just as portrayed in the book of Genesis.  This act of breathe-in-us is in fact what makes us human; perhaps it is how we get the image of God in us in the first place.
The second is that each and every breath is wholly unique.  It never was, and never will be.
One of the implications of these two facts considered together is that it is not only each of our own breaths which can be said to be unique.  Each breath from God is a wholly unique experience.

The Practice: 
1.  Release your worries and concerns.  Note your breath.  
2.  Become present to this very breath with your inhale.
3.  Become present to this very breath with your exhale.
4.  Note the feeling of the breath as it comes in.  
5.  Note the feeling of the breath as it goes out.
6.  With the next inhale, note that this experience, this particular breath is different than all the breaths that ever came before.
7.  With the next exhale, note that this experience, this particular breath, is different than all the breaths that will ever come after.
8.  Continue this pattern.  Be present to this breath, here and now.  Note that the specific sensations are different than the last breath or the next one.
9.  Notice that the ‘you’ who is breathing this particular  breath is in some tiny way different than the ‘you’ who breathed that last breath.
10.  Notice that the ‘you’ who is breathing this particular breath is different than the you who will breathe that next breath.  
11.  When you are ready, bring to mind the reality that God is breathing this breath into you. 
12.  Bring to mind the reality that you are breathing this breath into God.   
13.  With your next inhale, receive a breath from God that is different than all the breaths God has ever breathed into anyone.
14.  With your next exhale, breathe a breath into God that is different than all the breaths anyone will ever breathe into God.
15.  With your next inhale, as you receive a breath from God, note that the wholly unique character of this very inhalation is a direct result of the interplay between God’s breath and yours.
16.  With your next exhale, as you breathe out a breath to God, be aware that the wholly unique character of the interplay between you and God.
17.  Continue this pattern until it is time to release it.  Then, spend some time in wordless union.

Exercise 58: God’s Breath, God’s Name

This practice original appeared in our Email Exploration, God Breathed.

Background: Recall that one way of understanding the “name” which is sometimes rendered as Yahweh is to see that these letters were meant to resemble the breath.  That is, God’s name is not a series of sounds like any other name.  God’s name is something quite different; it is the act of breathing itself.  For more information and a practice that focuses only on this idea, click here.
At the same time, God is said to have scooped up a handful of earth.  God breathed into it, and then it was a human being.  We can experience God’s ongoing breath as in us as an act of ongoing creation.  We can live in this reality that with each of our inhalations, God is breathing into us.  With each of our exhalations, God is recieving our breath.  For more information on this practice and a practice which focuses only on this idea, click here.

The Exercise
1.  Take a deep breath in.
2.  Exhale.
3.  Release your expectations and worries as you take 2 more deep breaths in and out.
4.   As you inhale, experience this as the first half of God’s name,
5.  As you exhale, experience this as the second half of God’s name.
6.  Repeat steps four and five for a few minutes.
7.   As you inhale, feel God breathing life into you.
8.  As you exhale, feel your breath going out into God’s lungs.
9.  Repeat steps 7 and 8 for a few minutes.
10.  Now, bring these two practices together: inhale.  Receive that breath from God, even knowing that this is the first half of God’s truest name.
11.  Exhale: breathing out a breath received by God.  This receipt is the second half of God’s name.
12.  Continue steps 10 and 11 for most of the time remaining that you had reserved for this practice.
13.  When you are ready, release your images and experiences.  Sit in a time of wordless union.

If you would like to try a practice which combines this one with an awareness of this present moment being the only one we have, this present breath being the only breath we ever breathe, click here.

Exercise 57: In God’s Womb

Background:  Much of my spiritual growth over these last few years has been around opening my mind to the reality of the divine feminine.  I suppose it was one of those, “When-the-student-is ready,-the-teacher-appears” things, that Phileena Heuertz’s Mindful Silence was so impactful to me.  In particular, she talks about a period in her life that she found it helpful to see herself as within God’s womb.

If you had asked me about being in God’s womb even a year before that, I would have found some made up reason to be uncomfortable with it.  The reality is that I had not truly made peace with the fact that both men and women are made in God’s image.

The exercise below was inspired by Ms. Heuertz’s experiences as portrayed in that book.  If you are going to read only one book about the contemplative path, it should be that one.  If you are going to read more than one book about the contemplative path, you ought to think about picking up one of mine.  🙂

On the subject, this exercise will appear in the soon-to-be-released Contemplating Lent.  Stay tuned for more details.

The Exercise

  1. Close your eyes.  Sit in a comfortable position.
  2. Take 3 deep breaths.  Try to fully empty your lungs with the exhales and fully inflate your lungs with the inhales.
  3. Imagine yourself dwelling in the womb of God.  It is a place that is safe, comfortable, and warm.
  4. Feel all your needs for food and oxygen being met through a cord that reaches into your body through your navel.  Know that you are protected in this place.
  5. Continue those deep breaths.  Luxuriate in the way you are being nourished and prepared for what is next.
  6. Take all the time that you need.
  7. God is within you.  Know that this is true.  Take a deep breath.
  8. Live in the paradox that even as you are in God, God is in you.
  9. God may be small, now.  But a divine spark is within.  See this spark as a child in a womb.
  10. Know that you are nourishing this God-spark.  It is growing strong and healthy in the dark mystery within you.
  11. As you continue to breathe deeply, and hold to the image that you are in God’s womb, cultivate this idea that God is also in your womb.
  12. Sit in this comfortable paradox, this warm, nourishing safe reality for as long as you need, today.

Contemplating Lent (1)

 

Exercise 56: An Advent Visualization

Background:  This advent, I have been filled with wonder at such a simple image: A pregnant woman, far from home.  She is traveling with her new husband because they have to.  There is no room in the human habitations.  She gives birth in the manger.  The child is something magnificent.

Because one of the sources of this image for me this year is an entire book, it is difficult to tie it into this practice.  Before we get into the nuts and bolts of this practice, I would like to quite heartily encourage you to check out the wonderful book of my good friend Jenn by clicking here.

This post contains the ingredients for many spiritual practices.  The description below is broken into three sections.  The first is an invitation to reading a number of different depictions of the entry into Bethlehem.  The second is a visualization walking the reader through the events.  The third is a series of reflections, meditations, and questions on these events.

I would recommend choosing only one element from each section for a session.  If this feels productive, you might return to this exercise and choose a second reading and series of meditations for your next session.  Less is more with spiritual practices.

There is a value in wondering about the historical details.  But not for this practice, today.  If it is easier, it would be just as helpful to imagine this scene occurring in a city today.  Perhaps, instead of a donkey, Mary rides in a sidecar of an old, broken down motorcycle.  Or her feet have swollen with the pregnancy and she is pushed by Joseph in a wheelchair.

The Practice.

Part A: Some Readings to Choose From

  1.  Release your expectations and stress with three deep inhales and exhales.
  2. Consider one (or perhaps two) of the following passages.  You may wish to read it more than once:   

Click here to read Luke 2: 1-20

Or, read this poem about the event:

If
you want
the Virgin will come walking down the road
pregnant with the holy,
and say,
“I need shelter for the night, please take me inside your heart,
my time is so close.”

Then, under the roof of your soul, you will witness the sublime
intimacy, the divine, the Christ
taking birth
forever,

as she grasps your hand for help, for each of us
is the midwife of God, each of us.

Yet there, under the dome of your being does creation
come into existence eternally, through your womb, dear pilgrim—
the sacred womb in your soul,

as God grasps our arms for help; for each of us is
His beloved servant
never far.

If you want, the Virgin will come walking
down the street pregnant
with Light and sing …

–St. John of the Cross, “If You Want” in Daniel Ladinsky Love Poems from God: Twelve Sacred Voices from the East and West (New York: Penguin Group, 2002), 306-307.

Or read this poem

Sometimes I wonder
if Mary breastfed Jesus.
if she cried out when he bit her
or if she sobbed when he would not latch.

and sometimes I wonder
if this is all too vulgar
to ask in a church
full of men
without milk stains on their shirts
or coconut oil on their breasts
preaching from pulpits off limits to the Mother of God.

but then i think of feeding Jesus,
birthing Jesus,
the expulsion of blood
and smell of sweat,
the salt of a mother’s tears
onto the soft head of the Salt of the Earth,
feeling lonely
and tired
hungry
annoyed
overwhelmed
loving

and i think,
if the vulgarity of birth is not
honestly preached
by men who carry power but not burden,
who carry privilege but not labor,
who carry authority but not submission,
then it should not be preached at all.

because the real scandal of the Birth of God
lies in the cracked nipples of a
14 year old
and not in the sermons of ministers
who say women
are too delicate
to lead.

-Kaitlin Hardy Shetler

If you purchased the book suggested above, you might read the passage depicting Jesus’ birth in that book.  Jesus birth happens in chapter 11 of The Favored One.

Part B.  The Visualization

1.  Inhale and exhale 3 times.  

2.  Bring to mind the reading from above.  Sit with the images, thoughts, and feelings that might have come up from you.  When you are ready, imagine the following.  Try and do it from the perspective of one of the characters in the narrative: Pregnant Mary, Concerned Joseph, even The Donkey or a Jesus who has yet to be born.  Experience this scene with your senses.  

They have been traveling all day.  Are they tired and weary?  Is this faitgue tempered with fear or excitement?  What is the temparature, as they enter into a town that is bursting at the seams?  Imagine them coming into the town.  Are there numerous places that are full?  Are the Roman Solidiers standing by, ready to take a census?     Does the concern on Mary and Joseph’s face grow?  Hear the “clop” of the donkeys heels on the hard ground.  Feel the sweat on the scratchy fabric of the shirt.  

There comes a moment when it is clear that there will be no beds for this night, no roof that was made for people.  What are the feelings you experience at this moment?  Enter into the manger.  Imagine the smells that come to you.  What animals are present?  Are they eating or making their animal noises?  Are their flies?  Are their attendants of the animals?  How do they look at you, as you begin to move around the hay to make your shelter for the night?

Take the time you need to imagine the moments it becomes clear that the baby will be born here.  In this place, at this time.  Does the angelic visitation, and the promises made about this child feel close now?  The water breaks.  How do you feel?  How does your partner feel?  Does a midwife come into the picture?  Is their pain?  Medicine?  Joy?  Blood?

Imagine the first time Mary holds the baby.  How did Joseph look when he first held the baby?  When do they cut the cord?  What happens next?

3.  Continue this scene for as long as you would like.  Return to the readings listed in section A.   if you wish.  I would encourage you to return to a passage you read earlier and try out a new reading the next time you engage this spiritual practice.

4.  Sit with this scene and experience.  Let it penetrate you until it is time to release it.  When you have let it go, consider whether you will sit in a time of wordless union or if you will progress to section C.  Here there are some questions and meditations to consider.

Section C: Some Questions and Meditations

  1.  Inhale.  Exhale.  Bring to mind your experience of the readings in section A.
  2. Inhale.  Exhale.  Bring to mind your experience of the visualization in section B.  
  3. Inhale.  Exhale.
  4. Sit with any one of the following.  Your may wish to save a second or third question or meditation for the future.

I.  Return to that image of Jesus and Mary entering into the town.  Sit with it for a moment.  Now, make the town of Bethlehem your mind and heart.  See Joseph and Mary entering into this space.  What thoughts, feelings, or experiences are you having trouble welcoming?  What difficult realities are you struggling to accept?  See that their is a manger within you.  This is a small, forgotten aspect of your own inner self.  But it is all that you need.  Invite this formerly unwelcome aspect of your own self here.  Soon, Jesus will come into the world from this very space.

II.  See Mary’s belly swollen with life about to enter the world.  Christ is being born in you even now at this very moment.  Sit with this experience of Christ being born in you.   Feel it coming from elsewhere and entering into your world.  Don’t rush this birth.  Sit with what it could mean and how it might change you.

III.  Dwell in the stark, perhaps uncomfortable reality of Jesus birth.  It is no less paradoxical and extreme than any other birth.  Filled with pain and possibility, hope and agony.  It is bloody and scary, intimate and clinical.  Take your time to put together what you have known and experienced of human birth and realize that all this applied to Jesus, too.  After you have sat with this, consider what it might mean.  What does it mean about God?  What does it mean about Jesus?  What does it mean about you?  How does it alter your past?  Your present?  Your future?

 

 

 

  

Exercise 55: Meditations for Each Week of Advent

Background: Advent  is a time of quiet anticipation in the darkness.  Traditionally, the weeks leading up to Christmas have been assigned a theme, signified by the lighting of a candle.  As you try these practices you might join in this tradition by lighting a single candle the first week, a pair the next week, three candles the third week, and four candles on the fourth week.

One expression of these advent themes is hope, peace, joy, and love.

These are four powerful words.  They can be used in a few different ways contemplatively.  In the examples below, the word “peace” is used.  If you wish to follow the traditional themes, of course, you should substitute this word for whichever is appropriate to the week.

One way to use these words is as a method of dismissing disruptive thoughts. We set the intention to sit with calm, untroubled minds.   The word (hope, peace, etc.)  is brought to mind whenever disruptive thoughts or emotions arise.  This is a method used in some Buddhist practices and by the Centering Prayer movement.

One important difference between Centering Prayer and Buddhists who use a word to release our preoccupation with distractions is that Centering Prayer invites us to think of the use of this word as a symbol of our consent for the Holy Spirit’s intervention into our quiet time.  One important thing they have in common is that both groups emphasize the goal of being gentle with the use of the word, and avoiding the hamster wheel of becoming emotionally charged as intrusive thoughts threaten to distract us.  Wise teachers have advocated that we aim for a sense of gratitude each time we use our sacred word and avoid the idea that we are “doing it wrong” each time we return to our practice.

55A: The Practice

  1.  Place your feet flat on the floor.  Take 3 cleansing breaths.  
  2. Release your worries and concerns for this time.  Do your best to clear your mind.
  3. As intrusive thoughts arise, dismiss them by thinking the word “Peace.”  Sink into this word.
  4. Continue this practice for as long as you wish.

 

Background: These words can also be used as a mantra.  A mantra is a word that is used with out stopping.  It is repeated nonstop.  In some ways this is more preventative than the prior strategy.  The hope is that in occupying the mind, we prevent any intrusive thoughts from arising.  I find mantra meditation particular powerful when done out loud.  The word can be chanted or even sung.   I find that after a time, I occupy a strange space of knowing what the word means but somehow also feeling that the word is nonsensical.  This can be a bridge, a case study in the limits of all our concepts and words.

For some, the goal of mantra meditation is to hear the word already being said somewhere deep within.

55B: The Practice

  1.  Create a quite and safe space for yourself.  Light some candles if you wish.
  2. Begin saying (or thinking) your sacred word.  You might begin with a slow and steady rhythm.  Be open to the possibility of chanting or singing.
  3. If thoughts, feelings, or other mental intrustions arise, sink more deeply into the experience of this particular word.
  4. When your time nears an end, release the word.  Sit in a time of wordless union.

 

Background:  As the name implies, breath prayers are words to God that can be offered up within the span of a single breath.  Usually these are repeated several times.  Often times, the inhalation and exhalation are used differently.  For example, a certain phrase might be connected with the inhale and a different phrase connected to the exhale.

Please recall that you might coordinate this with each of the advent weeks.  Though the example below uses the word “peace” you could also use the word “hope” or “love.”

Practice 55C: A first breath prayer.

  1.  Take 3 deep, cleansing breaths.
  2. With the next inhale, think “Peace”
  3.  Exhale the feelings in your heart and body which stand in the way of peace.
  4. Repeat steps 2 and 3 for the time you have devoted to this practice.

 

 

Exercise 54: Labeling Thoughts

Background:  Once, finding information was hard.  Those of us who remember life before the internet know that once we had to research with card catalogs and microfiche readers.  At that time, the challenge was to locate anything at all on certain topics.

Today, our problem is quite the opposite.  The internet overloads us.  It is hard to imagine a topic which would not turn over results.  The issue, of course, is knowing which information is relevant and reliable.  It is no longer about finding information.  It is about filtering the excess so that we can get to what is useful.

Our brains are a lot like an internet search.  They can provide an overabundance of information.  Some of it is critical.  Other information?  Useless and unreliable.  While our brain shares with us intuitions about this person we just met or  pleasing sensory data which might help us to enjoy the moment it is also reporting our fears about tomorrow, and regrets about yesterday.  It might be replaying a script that no long applies.

This is one of the reason that contemplation is so important.  Many spiritual practices seek to turn down the volume of the brains constant broadcasts so that we can discern where the important information is.  Today’s spiritual practice calls on us to label the thinking that is going on.

It is important to remember that our brain’s job is to think.  It is unlikely we will achieve a goal of thoughtlessness.  This would be a dubious goal anyway.  My goal is to turn down the volume, not to turn it off.  When we day dream, we can return ourselves to this practice gently, with a sense of gratitude that we were able to bring ourselves back.

The Practice

  1.  Release your expectations and sense of obligations with your exhale.
  2. Inhale through the nose.
  3. Exhale through the mouth.
  4. Seek a time of mental quiet.
  5. When a thought arises, simply label it “thinking.”
  6. return to your breath.
  7. Continue this breathing, labeling of thoughts, and returning to the mental quiet for the time you have set aside for your practice this morning.