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 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.
- Begin to find your center and place your feet flat on the floor.
- Breathe and relax, as best you can.
- 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.
- Consider your desolations:
- What are you least thankful for?
- Where can’t you see God?
- What seems to be moving you away from God?
- Release your desolations by breathing slowly and calmly.
- Consider your consolations.
- What are you most thankful for?
- Where can you see God?
- What seems to be moving you toward God?
- Release your consolations by breathing slowly and carefully.
- 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’?
- Release the word-based part of the practice. Enjoy a moment with God.