Category Archives: Practices for Specialized Places & Times

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 47: Oneness Within a Web of Living Beings

Background:  Thinkers such as Ken Wilber have observed that it is somewhat arbitrary, the ways that we put importance on a single individual.  We are made of millions of cells.  The cells are arranged in tissues, the tissues are are arranged in organs.  The organs are arranged in organ systems.  The organ systems are arranged in organisms.  The organisms are arranged in communities.  The communities are arranged in ecosystems.  All the ecosystems, when taken together, form the biosphere.

We have consciousness of ourselves as individuals, of course.  But this seems like a small reason to put so much of our attention to one middle-level of this arrangement.  There is something to be said for the idea that the consciousness we think is running the show is in fact just giving us a report of the things that are already happening.

If you can do the following practice in the presence of a a plant, or better yet a tree, that is a definite plus.

The Practice

1.  Find a comfortable position.  Release your worries and expectations.  Place your phone on silent mode.

2.  Breathe in, through the nose if you can.

3.  Breathe out, through the mouth.

4.  Try to breathe in more deeply.  Place your hand on your abdomen and feel it move.

5.  Exhale again.  

6.  Take one last inhale, before we move in to the next step.  Can you make it your deepest?

7.  Fully exhale.

8.  Spend a moment considering a plant or tree.  Behold and love it.  Consider the individuality of this one specific plant.  See it’s leaves and branches.  Imagine the roots of the thing.  Allow your thoughts or eyes to really linger on this friend.

9.  With your next inhale, breathe in.  Recognize that some of the very air you breathed might have been made from that plant.

10.  With your next exhale, breathe the air out knowing this is what the plant will need.  It will inhale the carbon dioxide of your breath.

11.  Take two more deep breaths, connecting with the plant in this relationship of oxygen and carbon dioxide.

12.  When you are ready, try to erase the boundaries between yourself and the plant.  Can you imagine a level upon which you and the plant are not two seperate individuals but one common entity?  Experience a sense of oneness with the tree or plant.  It is giving you what you need.  You are giving it what it needs.

13.  Linger on this experience for as long as you need or want to.

14.  Widen this circle in your mind.  See yourself and this tree as a part of all plant-animals and animals within your area.  (perhaps this area is about the size of a city block.)  First, sit with the idea that they are in a perfect, reciprocal cycle of oxygen and carbon dioxide.

15.  The gasses, in a way, are just a metaphor for so much more.  Sit in your place in this system.   Make it larger, in your mind, if you wish.  First, broaden the meaning of relationship, knowing (but don’t bother listing) that we get more than just oxygen.  Then, broaden the size of the network.

16.  When you have made this network as broad, and deep as your mind will allow, sit with it.  In some important sense, all the living creatures in your mind, all the plants and the animals, they are one.

16.  If you would like, consider whether God is present within the animals or plants in this relationship.  Is God above them?  Or the movement of the matter and energy between them?  Both?  Neither?

17.  Hold this web of connection: you, other animals, plants, trees, God in your mind.  Take as long as you would like to sit as one part of this network of relationships.

18.  When you are ready, return in your mind to just you and the plant you begin with.  Consider the differences between yourself and the plant.  Try and hold to the idea that you are still one.  But the plant has specialties.  So do you.  The organism that is formed between the two of you is greater than the sum of your parts.  Think about the ways that you and the plant are such a good pair.

19.  When you are ready to dismiss this practice, thank the plant and move into your day, knowing that you can bring your mind back to your place in this tremendous network of beings.

 

 

 

Exercise 31: Adoration

Background:  This exercise works best in an outside environment.  While it is good to simply explore, sometimes, don’t be unwise about this situation.  Pay attention to your surroundings enough to know where you are and how to safely get yourself back to where you began, please.

The Exercise:

  1. Explore your surroundings; meander, and hike around.  Do your best to see things with new eyes, even if you are familiar with the area.  
  2. Find your breath and do your best to stay there, breathing calmly for the duration of this exercise.
  3. As you continue your walk, be open for little nudgings from The Spirit of an object to give special attention to.  It might be a rock, a leaf, a tree, a plant; perhaps even an anthill or smudge of paint.
  4. When you find this object– what ever it is– approach it with loving reverence.  
  5. Carefully consider the setting of the object.  Where is it?  What is around it?
  6. Look at it from as many angles as possible.
  7. Touch and smell it, if you can.
  8. Sit with this object, whatever it is.  Love it, as best you can.
  9. This object is a manifestation of God.  The whole of God can be inferred from this one single thing.  Sit with this image for a long time.  Get to know it intimately.
  10. If thoughts, feelings, or memories seek to intrude on this time, release them by returning to this item, whatever it is.

Throughout your day, know that you can bring this object to mind as a way to find calm.

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Exercise 26: Nature Adoration

Background: There is such a long history of nature mysticism.  One of the dynamics at play is the idea that we can discover the extent to which God lives and breathes in the creation.

The Exercise

  1.  Find a calm place with lots of nature present.
  2. Begin a slow, meandering walk.  Be present and aware of your surroundings.  Keeping an air of calm, do your best to discover something new in this place.
  3. Be on the look out for a particular object that speaks to you.  Perhaps it is a cloud, or a rock, or the way the shadows of a leave lands on the grass.  It needn’t be big or beeutiful in any classic kind of sense.  You might know this thing right away when you see it.  You might walk past, consider it for a while, and return.
  4. When you have chosen the thing you will adore, open yourself to it.
  5. Study it with love.  As if you had to memorize it.  Describe it’s appearance.
  6. Apply your other senses to it; listen to it, smell it and touch it, if possible.
  7. To the extent that God is in anything, God is in everything.  Experience this object as unfolding of God.
  8. When you are done with your time of adoration, let this object go.  Consider whether you have a new understanding of the nature of God.  Ask yourself whether you could put this understanding into words.
  9. If you wish, keep this object in your mind as an icon of God’s presence in the world.

You can help in turning The Faith-ing Project into a fully functioning community.  You can do this in several ways:

  • Share your thoughts, feelings, and criticism below in the comments.
  • email otherjeffcampbell7@gmail.com to share something directly with the Project’s Director, to join our next email campaign, or to ask to be placed on the mailing list.
  • Access exclusive content and help The Faithing Project share spiritual practices with a world in desperate need.  Become a  Patron.
  • follow @faithingproject on twitter.