A spiritual exercise for a time of division and upheaval
I don’t know about you, but I find when things around me are getting crazy, it becomes difficult to connect to any deeper sense of self or God. I start to live almost entirely on the surface of things, usually running back and forth as wave after wave crashes down.
How do we get to that deep down part of ourselves when things are so volatile all around us? It is not easy.
One thing that has helped me over the years is the work of Anthony de Mello, S.J. Father de Mello was an Indian Jesuit who did a lot of writing around spirituality. His passion was inviting people into a deeper sense of self-awareness through simple techniques like breathing or engaging the senses.
I don’t know about you, but I find when things around me are getting crazy, it becomes difficult to connect to any deeper sense of self or God.
I’ve adopted a couple of the techniques in his book Sadhana: A Way to God into the exercise below. Its goal is to help us become more present to ourselves, more aware of what we are thinking and feeling in this moment.
So here we go.
Pick a place that brings you pleasure. If you have a garden or a screened-in porch, I highly recommend that. But it should be somewhere that you feel safe, at home and connected to the broader world.
Sit yourself down there. Get comfortable.
Now close your eyes and take some long, deep breaths. Savor the sensations of breathing: the rise and fall of your chest; the experience of drinking in oxygen.
Give yourself a little time to enjoy that. If you find it really pleasant, you could spend the whole exercise just doing this.
Close your eyes and take some long, deep breaths. Savor the sensations of breathing: the rise and fall of your chest; the experience of drinking in oxygen.
After you have done that for a while—I suggest three to five minutes; you could even set a timer if you want—slowly start to pay attention to the sounds of the world around you. Drink them in, just like you did your breath.
Some of the sounds you pick up might be naturally attractive, like a bird singing or kids on a playground. Others might not: construction; a machine; someone’s voice. But whatever it is you pick up, try to just allow it a place in your life for the moment. It is all part of the world that you are savoring.
When you have done that for another three to five minutes, slowly open your eyes and take in the world around you. Again, drink it in. To be clear, you do not need to “find” anything. This is not Where’s Waldo? Think of what you see like a painting that you’re standing before. Just be present to it. See how it affects you.
As you do this exercise, you may find your mind wandering from time to time onto things that seem like distractions—chores you need to get done; people you care about or have beef with; matters about which you’re worried or upset. You might even think you should push those things away.
I want to suggest instead that anything that comes up is part of the gift you are being offered here, part of becoming more present to yourself. When we let ourselves grow still, it’s natural for all kinds of things, including some from deep within us, to come to the surface. It may be that the point of the whole exercise was just to enable you to become aware of a given feeling or issue.
In the crucible of our suffering, we so often learn what is truly important to us and where we are called to go.
You do not have to do anything with those thoughts or feelings right now. You do not have to figure out what they mean or how to solve them. Just see if you can let them be there with you. If it helps, think of them like a pet that has crawled in your lap while you are doing this exercise. You want to make a little space for them, and together you continue the exercise.
When you’ve done three to five minutes of looking at the world, slowly close your eyes and go back to just listening for a while, say, two minutes. Then, go back to just breathing. And really take your time with that. Enjoy the act of breathing.
When you feel like you are done, slowly open your eyes. See how you feel.
Sometimes I do this and it is just 10 minutes of being unplugged from the world, which can be a great gift in and of itself. Sometimes the exercise brings some insight—an awareness of something I want to do now or something within me that needs attention. A call or invitation.
And sometimes, I walk away simply more aware of the feelings within me, especially feelings that are more uncomfortable like anger or confusion. Generally I would prefer not to feel those things. But over time I have learned that if I’m going to move past those feelings, I first have to truly allow myself to feel them. In order to heal, wounds first have to bleed. And allowing myself to feel outrage or sadness when I have been hurt is an act of self-acceptance and empowerment. In the crucible of our suffering, we so often learn what is truly important to us and where we are called to go.