Oct 25 2011

{Day 25} The Contemplative Body, Part 2

Silent All These Years – Susan Forshey, 2000

In my last post exploring the importance of the body in contemplative living, I suggested that there are three challenges to paying attention to the well-being or ill-being of the body:

  • We are unaware.
  • We are aware, but believe it won’t change; or,
  • We are aware, but feel powerless to change our behavior, even knowing the consequences

In exploring the first challenge, I hope that in the past few days you’ve had an opportunity to notice the ordinary day-to-day sensations surrounding sleeping, eating, working, etc., and are beginning to bring into awareness moments where there is a deeper connection between head, heart, and body; those moments where the disconnect is wide and dizzying; or those moments of waking-up after a period of numbing through media, internet, task surfing, or some other activity done not for itself, but as a distraction.

In each of these cases, the practice is about paying closer attention, but not making huge shifts in your schedule or activities. Just notice.

Even as you sit, reading this blog post, extend your contemplative attention: What is happening in this moment? How does my body feel? How does my spirit feel?

And then ask, Where is God with me in this moment?

We are embodied. Our feelings, thoughts, and the experience of our spiritual aspect are all tied together. While we often split body and spirit, or mind and feelings, in truth, what we are doing, thinking, feeling, and our experience of God in this moment are all filtered through our bodies.

Simply notice the information your body is providing–feelings, thoughts, pain, memories, a sense of well- or ill-being, energy, weariness–and let the Holy Spirit use this information to help you make connections.

The second challenge is more difficult because, while there is awareness, there is also a belief that “this is the new normal.”

The irony of this post is that it’s four days late because of my own wrestling with this challenge. For the past year and half, I’ve gotten cold or flu viruses nearly every month. This past week, the new normal knocked again on my door, forcing me to bed with a fever. But finally, thanks to reflecting on contemplative living and the body, it was a wake-up call to take some action.

I’m fairly slow to give the signals my body sends me any real credence.

The last time I was in the position of listening, dealing with migraines, it took me way too long to seek a solution. I’d adapted as best I could on my own, but finally reached a morning where I said, “God, get me out of the pit I’ve fallen in.” And he did, through the advice of a kind neurologist who also suffered from migraines, I embarked on a new life, never believing that life could change so rapidly for the better.

Before accepting that nothing can change, it’s important to listen.

Of course, the tension in this practice is that the ill-being we’re experiencing might be the new circumstances of our life.

If that is the case, even then, contemplative attention to the body and to God’s presence with us in our embodiment, can help us deal with the circumstances with care and wisdom.

Practice: So, what is your “new normal?” What are the signals of ill-being that your body is communicating? Bring your experience into conversation with God. We often say that we are to be like “little children” in faith. The little persons I know bring their ouwies to a trusted adult for comfort and a kiss. I think God longs for us to do the same.

While discomfort may be overwhelming any other signals, stay with your awareness and see if there is any sense of well-being, joy, anticipation, or hope in other areas of your experience or body.

Is there a possibility of expanding that sense of well-being?

Sometimes discomfort is not simply discomfort. Discomfort can be married to the disappointment, frustration, anger, or exhaustion that comes with it. Being able to sort out the discomfort from everything else can often bring a renewed sense of well-being even in pain.

Is there a possibility of relaxing your body’s tension around your sense of ill-being?

And, finally, are there some possible cause and effect connections?

Oct 24 2011

{Day 24} The Contemplative Body, Part 1

Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly. –Matthew 11:28-30

A battle has been waged through the centuries, a battle that could be simplistically described as spirit vs body, or body vs spirit.  It’s manifested in many different ways. Either the body is seen as the source of evil, from which the spirit must be freed, or the body is indulged to the starvation of the spirit. Either approach is a merciless and death-dealing way of living.

An early sect, the Gnostics, believed that the divine and the material worlds were in opposition. A small spark of spirit existed in each person and needed to be freed from the evil of the body. Christianity ingested to varying degrees their antagonism toward physical existence.

The important point to remember is that the belief of the early Christians was fundamentally different from much of the philosophies and religious practices around them because they believed that God had not only been revealed in Jesus Christ, but that God had taken on our soma, Greek for physical body: God and human, two natures, inseparable, but distinct.

The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.  We saw the glory with our own eyes, the one-of-a-kind glory, like Father, like Son, generous inside and out, true from start to finish. –John 1:14 MSG

Jesus’ resurrection was viewed not simply as a resurrection of the spirit–the early Christians were already surrounded with Greek philosophies and other religions that promised such an existence–but a redemption and resurrection of both spirit and body.

Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15:44, uses a wonderful, mysterious term to describe this new way of being: soma pnematikos, or a physical body full of spirit. God’s redeeming of the unique beauty of the human person in his or her embodiment was an extremely important part of the good news of Jesus’ coming. This is one of the reasons the early church was fraught with so many discussions and arguments about the nature of Jesus–who Jesus is makes a difference to the hope of his followers.

As a side note, some of the confusion in English translations of scripture comes from the translation of the Greek term, sarx, as flesh. For Paul, this was not the same as soma, or physical existence in itself, but the predilection of death-dealing behavior in humanity.

The incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, taken together means something important for the human body. God did not consider the stuff of the human body as evil. The human body is an important component of humanity that, redeemed, would be in some new and wonderful way, a participant in eternal life with God.

What does this mean for our discussion of contemplative living?

In the pursuit of a life paying attention to the present moment and to God’s presence in that moment, the body will always be an important partner. We began this month simply using our senses to listen and focus.  But so far the focus has been external, now I would like for us to turn our contemplative attention toward the body.

For those of us with experience of chronic illness, practicing contemplative awareness of the body is a fact of life. For many years, I’ve experienced migraines brought on by certain foods. To have such a clear cause and effect, such as “eating cheddar will cause a migraine,” is helpful. I don’t wish to be in pain and have impaired function, so I avoid cheddar. Many of you may already have this awareness of cause and effect.

The challenge is that it is often not that simple. We may be unaware of what is helpful or unhelpful for our bodies; or we know, but don’t believe we can do anything about it; or we think, I can’t stop, even though I know the consequences.

We’ll take on the first part of the challenge today.

Paying attention to healthful and unhealthful habits of living is the point where contemplative, present moment awareness is put into service of the larger, longer view. This practice is not fueled by guilt or “should,” but is the joyful exploration of abundant life in Christ.

We are not simply locked into the moment. Christ is with us in the present, but is calling us to a glorious finish. We have a goal, what the early Christians called the telos.

Do you not know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win. Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we, an imperishable one. Thus I do not run aimlessly; I do not fight as if I were shadowboxing.  No, I drive my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified. –1 Corinthians 9: 24-27

We are running a race. Paying attention to what helps us run well is critical.

On the other hand, I know that even the thought of running can make some of us want to go back to bed and pull the covers over our head, so as you practice this week, remember Jesus’ words of invitation:

Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly. –Matthew 11:28-30

Practice: Imagine that you are partnering with the Holy Spirit to create a “user’s manual” for the incredibly unique image of God that you are. Pay attention to your body this week as you go about your schedule. Take some notes. I find it very helpful to use a monthly calendar with big squares to keep a record. It helps reveal patterns at a glance.

When are you tired? When do you have energy?

When do you feel numbed out? When do you feel restless?

What are frequent pains or discomforts?

What do you eat? How is your sleep?

What is your sense of well-being or ill-being?

What feeds your sense of God’s presence? What supports you in loving those around you? What invigorates creativity? What invigorates prayer and thankfulness?

No need to make any changes, but look for cause and effect relationships.  Bring what you are noticing into your conversation with God.

Oct 12 2011

{Day 12} Single-Tasking, Pt 3

Ferry Flyer by SLF

Up to this point in the series, I’ve asked you to simply pay attention to the present moment.

Today I’d like to invite you to try a technique called Pomodoro.

As I mentioned in the last post, once we get into a habit of task surfing, it becomes more difficult to shift our brains into focus.

Attention is not an on/off switch. It’s more like a muscle and to keep it focused on one thing requires exercise. It also gets tired of concentrating and needs regular breaks.

The Pomodoro Practice:

  1. Choose one task on your to-do list, or choose one activity.
  2. Unless it is reading and answering email, close your email.  Close all your windows on your computer that you don’t need for the task. Turn off the TV and commercial or talk radio (though music that will help you do the task is okay). Let the phone go to voicemail. Disable any computer or phone notifications that will interrupt–these begin the shift of attention away from one task to another. Basically, turn off or disable any technology which would alert you to other tasks.
  3. Set your phone, watch, or stove timer for 25 minutes.
  4. Do the activity for 25 minutes without shifting to any other task.
  5. At the end of the 25 minutes, stand up and stretch. Then decide if you will continue on that task for another 25 minutes, or shift to something else. Whatever you decide, do another 25 minute session on a task or activity.

Of course, certain jobs and responsibilities make removing all interruptions difficult, if not impossible.

If the present moment offers you an invitation to attend to something or someone else, then decide if you will shift attention.

If you do shift, go fully into paying attention to the new situation, rather than trying to split attention. (As an example, try not to work on the computer and have a conversation at the same time.)

Stop one task in order to fully pay attention to the next.

The key is to finding the balance between focusing and letting the present moment simply be what it is, with its unpredictability.

31 Days

Oct 11 2011

{Day 11} Single-Tasking vs Task Surfing, Pt 2


“Undertake all your affairs with a calm mind and try to dispatch them in order one after the other. If you make an effort to do them all at once or without order, your spirits will be so overcharged and depressed that they will likely sink under the burden without effecting anything.” –Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, 17th century

Francis de Sales was an astute observer of human nature and a well-respected spiritual director in the 17th century. He believed that well-being lies in practicing focused attention on one task at a time, what is now being called single-tasking.  It is only recently that neuroscience has provided solid support for his observations.

The fun and wonder of having real-time arrival for my buses and GPS mapping in the palm of my hand, constant and instantaneous communication all over the world, a social network with hundreds of connections, and an awesome amount of information at my fingertips, comes the hard reality:

Without intentionally setting some boundaries, we can practice ourselves into distraction.

If you have not read Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School, I highly recommend it, especially to those charged with educating young people. Drawing together the most recent studies on the brain, John Medina, a faculty member at the University of Washington and Seattle Pacific University, offers clear arguments for why multi-tasking is simply bad for the brain.

The reality: our brains fake multi-tasking.

What looks like multi-tasking, or what I call task surfing, is simply rapid shifts between tasks that ultimately burdens our short-term memory. It’s not unlike having multiple windows open on a computer. As with a computer, our short-term memory can only hold so much, and over time, multi-tasking can begin to degrade our short-term memory capacity. Our brains simply burn out.

This is difficult news in a society that values people who (seem to be able to)  do many things at once.

Here’s how the brain handles a task:

  1. My brain shifts attention to the task at hand, say, to write this blog post.
  2. With the initial shift of attention, my brain runs a search for neurons capable of working on the blog post, and then rouses those neurons to start working. This takes several tenths of a second to complete. Right now my neurons are happily humming along as I think and type and ponder some more.
  3. But, oh, I haven’t checked my email in a while. So I decide to shift my attention. My brain disengages from writing on the blog, drops it into short-term memory, and clicks over to email.
  4. My brain begins a search for email-reading neurons, and then rouses those neurons to start working. This shift takes time to complete. The blog-post writing neurons shut down.

Every time we shift our attention, this process must be completed step by step. Every time.

This is why driving and talking on a cell phone, or even reaching for a something, is so dangerous. The brain cannot perform two high level cognitive functions simultaneously–there has to be a shift of attention.

A person on a cell phone while driving has a reaction time similar to someone driving while intoxicated.

Medina argues that multi-tasking also leads to a task taking 50% longer and often with 50% more mistakes.

Now, I would like to distinguish between that heightened awareness and flow that happens when we are focused on an activity. In this case, there may be lots of information being processed at once, such as when I’m out taking photos–my senses are expanded wide to catch the next shot. While there would be some shifting of attention, the overall focus is on the activity of taking photos, rather than repeated interruptions to focus on something completely different.


Task surfing makes me feel like I’m accomplishing a lot, but in truth,  I don’t accomplish all that much, and the day becomes a blur, lost in the foggy in-between of attention shifting.

Constant task surfing drains energy. It affects memory, especially retention of information gained during a surfing period. And, even more, there isn’t much lasting delight in doing the tasks.

Task surfing may give a surge of short-term pleasure as the brain experiences new information, psychological validation, or relief from boredom, but it doesn’t give the heart long enough to engage and feel lasting enjoyment.

To top it off, I have found that my overall ability to focus greatly diminishes when I’ve fed my brain a steady diet of rapid distractions. It actually becomes more difficult to focus when I want to.

Sometimes repeated shifting from task to task is necessary, such as when caring for young children, or fulfilling other responsibilities which demand splitting attention among many activities. The key is becoming aware of when we are shifting because it is necessary, and when we are task surfing.

Practice: Pay attention today to when you shift your attention from task to task, why your shift it, and how you feel.

31 Days

This is part of an on-going October series on Contemplative Living. Due to a blog meltdown, I am slowly catching up on posts from the past two days. If you would like to read it from the beginning, the first day is here.

Oct 10 2011

{Day 10} Single-tasking, Pt 1


“I’m beginning to feel the drunkenness that this agitated, tumultuous life plunges you into. With such a multitude of objects passing before my eyes, I ‘m getting dizzy. Of all the things that strike me, there is none that holds my heart, yet all of them together distract my feelings, so that I forget where I am and who I belong to.” –The New Eloise, Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Many years ago, I read a book called Earthy Mysticism: Contemplation and the Life of Passionate Presence. The author, William McNamara, offered a basic rule of life for those seeking to live more contemplatively:

  • Live each day deliberately.
  • Do what you are doing.
  • Stop doing half the things you are doing in order to do the other half contemplatively, that is, with loving awareness.
  • Get up early in the morning.
  • Have a good read.
  • Enjoy as much beauty as you can.
  • Work as creatively as you can.

While each one of his points became important in my pursuit of living more attentively, the third on the list, “Stop doing half the things you are doing…,” has always struck me as both immensely desirable and completely impossible at the same time. There is so much to be done.

The more I reflect on it, however, the more I realize that contemplative attention is not in the perfection of single-pointed concentration, but lies in finding peace in the tension of both focusing on one thing at a time, and continued awareness of all the relationships, activities, and responsibilities which call for attention.

Finding that peace in the midst of life’s whirl (and some days, it doesn’t surprise me that the earth is spinning at 1000 mph) requires two practices: humility and trust.

To be able to let go of half the things we are doing, even one thing we are doing, requires something more than discipline or organization or boundaries, but a humble realization that we simply can’t do it all (no matter what our driven culture or internal voices tell us).

When we let go of whoever or whatever out of a realization that we cannot do everything, we can trust them to the God who has begun a good work and is faithful to complete it. We cultivate trust that we do not labor alone, and even more than us, God desires to bring all life to fullness in goodness, love, beauty, and truth.

Ultimately, this humility and trust leads us to acknowledge that God is God, and we are not. This isn’t a criticism or a failing. Receive it as God’s tender whispered love to you: You do not have to be God.

For your spouse.

For your children.

For your work.

For your family.

For your life.

The complex and mysterious structures of the universe flow and dance day after day, and we contribute in our tiny space and time to this larger tapestry. Our portion of responsibility, I believe, does have cosmic impact, but we trust that God is the One who will bring everything through to glorious completion.

So, to stop doing half the things we do may require a prioritizing of time, commitments, energy, and resources, and deciding that some things must be given to God.

It could also mean that we continue with the same schedule on the outside, but inside have released the drive to do it all or the worry about it all that can drive us in our commitments.  A day spinning too fast is a sign for me to pay attention, not so much to the number of tasks, but to the drain of drive and worry I add to the energy required to complete those tasks and see through commitments.

Practice: Consider your to-do list and schedule. No need to make any changes, no need to worry about prioritizing, just pay attention.

For each commitment, reflect on why you are doing it.

For each commitment, could you imagine life without it?

For each commitment, where is love moving?

For each commitment, how is God present?

As you reflect, if you find some questions or troubles rising to awareness, bring them to God.

31 Days

Oct 3 2011

{Day 3} Noticing Thankfulness


What is a memory for which you are grateful?

Take a moment to put yourself back into the memory, see the colors, hear the sounds, feel the emotions attached to the recollection.

Be there, just for an instant, stretch your imagination back to that moment. Breathe in the thoughts and feelings.

A precious memory I have is from when I was 8 or 9.  My family was living in Kentucky, at Ft Knox. If you are familiar with the area, you know that there are many little civil war cemeteries in the most unusual places. Some are forgotten in forests or sit lonely on top of hills. My dad and I loved to go on walks or bike rides together, exploring, and we’d pour over local maps to find these hidden pieces of history.

One of these little collections of stone monuments sat on top of a hill, right above the Kentucky Fried Chicken. The tallest obelisk poked out from tall grasses and my little historian imagination would go wild every time we drove past.

The problem was getting to it.

Kentucky wasn’t a place you went treading in grass above your head. Critters of the slithering kind were often minding their own business there. But I was not deterred, pestering my dad repeatedly, until one day, he agreed and we forged our way up the steep slope and unkempt path back in time to the 19th century.

The cemetery was small, less than 10 monuments, worn with weather and years. I was thrilled. The forgottenness of the place just made it more mysterious and separate from the commercial strip below.

And that my dad was willing to take me still makes me smile. I am grateful for this, one of many wonderfully clear memories of my dad’s love.


Three years ago, I stumbled upon Ann Voscamp’s A Holy Experience blog where she challenges her readers to count gratitudes to 1000 and beyond, small and large. Since then, thankfulness has changed my life and my relationships. When I want to enter deeply into the present moment, especially with people close to me, I count gratitudes. Alongside paying attention, it is one of the foundations of contemplative living and makes any moment a moment of  worship.

Gratitude Journal

Gratitude Journal

When we look for what we are thankful, our hearts expand, hope is near, and love over-flows. We stop consuming life and start living it, with and through the presence of God.


Practice: Write down 5 things you are grateful for. Not what you think you should be grateful for, but the people, places, memories, sights, smells, sounds, feelings, that make your heart and mind sing, “Oh, yes, thank you God!” I’d love to hear what’s on your list.

And visit Ann’s blog for some printables to start your own list of 1000 gifts.

31 Days

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