If we take seriously the attribute of divine omnipresence and the revelation of God as Love, then we cannot help but affirm that God is lovingly present always and everywhere. There is no place or circumstance in which this is not the case, so the question this raises for us is whether we are open to this ongoing encounter with God. In each and every moment, our attention is "somewhere," but where? Are we open to the God who is lovingly present to us, or are we "somewhere else?"
Spirituality, as we have noted in previous sessions, is very much about where we place our attention, and discernment pertains to our attentiveness to God's leadings. In conferences 1 - 4, we reflected on how we might understand God's "general will, then continued in conference #5 to review steps to discerning God's "particular will" among several options. This conference will deal with discernment at a deeper level, where we begin to get in touch with the dynamics of our own inner spirit, and how we are moving either toward or away from God in not only our external actions, but even in the thoughts we consent to in each moment. I will be using material adapted from my book, Here Now in Love, as we go along.
Ignatius was a Spaniard living in the early 16th century. At age 30, while fighting a battle against the French, he was seriously wounded, requiring several months of bed rest for his leg to heal. During that time, at his castle in Loyola, he requested novels to read, but as these were sparse, he was given mostly religious literature instead. In addition to becoming better informed about his faith, he became an astute observer of his own inner processes. He noted that when reading about the Saints, Mary, the life of Christ, etc., he felt peaceful and happy; when reading other kinds of literature, he didn't feel that way -- sometimes quite the opposite. This was the beginning of a process of inquiry and discovery that eventually led him to write his now famous "Spiritual Exercises," which he used in the formation of the priests who joined the Jesuit religious order he later founded.
What Ignatius discovered was that the kinds of thoughts we hold onto affects how we feel and even how we make decisions. The Holy Spirit is always at work to move our thoughts in the direction of our true happiness, which is living in God's loving presence throughout the day. There is another spirit at work within us, however -- Ignatitus called it the "evil spirit" -- which moves us away from God. In our second conference on Biblical principles, we noted this theme of the "two ways," one leading to sin, and the other to love. What Ignatius pointed out so clearly was that long before we observe evidence of the two ways in our external actions, we can find these movements at work in our own spirit. This entails learning to work with your thoughts.
Working With Thoughts
Where do your thoughts come from? What effects are they having on your feelings and the decisions you make?
Living a spiritual life requires that you ultimately take responsibility for the thoughts that are happening in your field of consciousness. All those thoughts you note within are giving some kind of form to your life and to creation. Every one of them! Many of them came into your being from other people (including, here, the culture), who communicated them to you in such a way that they "stuck" inside of you as beliefs. Some of these are for better, but many are not. It is even possible that spirits like angels and demons are telepathically communicating thoughts into your field of awareness. Knowing the ultimate origin of these thoughts is sometimes helpful, but not always necessary.
The first step is to be attentive to the thoughts you're having, for you cannot do anything about them until you first acknowledge them. In doing so, one "steps back," as it were, from time to time, especially when you notice emotional responses going on. "What have I been thinking?" You take inventory and honestly note to yourself (and to God, if you wish to do this in prayer), what your thoughts have been.
The next step is to notice the degree of consent you've been giving to your thoughts. When you consent to a thought or thoughts, you give more energy to the thought, enabling it to form you more deeply according to its particular dynamism. Consent, here, refers to an act of will (even if very subtle), and this is, in turn, ultimately influenced by thoughts, beliefs, and experiences. Consent means choosing to allow one course of action and/or to not allow another. Not allowing or consenting doesn't mean repressing, here, but simply not attending to it. When you repress something, you are attending to it, relating to it, giving energy to it, and all the while hoping that it won't become manifest (which it cannot help but eventually do simply because you are attending and energizing it). When you switch your energy away from a line of thought, however, neither repressing nor expressing it, but just ignoring it, you remove from it the energy to manifest. Without energy, a thought can do nothing, and so it eventually dissipates, or else languishes like a sailboat in a calm ocean, awaiting the next time the winds of energy will blow it again unto its formative destination.
The third step is to recognize the consequences that the thoughts you're consenting to are producing in you. For example, if you consent to thoughts such as "I'm a failure," you reinforce that dynamic in your being, and thus create a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you think you're a failure, you feel like one, your body gets this message as well, and you eventually act like one, bringing this thought to full manifestation. You might not have placed this thought in your mind to begin with, but your ongoing consent to it is the piece you can do something about. You can then decide to quit giving attention to that line of thought, and thus withdraw its energy. It's doubtful that you'll do so until you see the negative consequences, however.
Thoughts which enable you to entrust yourself to the gift of life in each moment are, obviously, very worthy of your consent. Thoughts which move you to contract your will and attention from the moment, thus activating anxious feelings, are to be rejected. Discernment is the practice of becoming aware of these two polarities present in thoughts, and of choosing which you will consent to.
Finally, you choose to withdraw consent from thoughts leading to evil and to give your attention to thoughts leading to good. Easier said than done, you might object, and that is true. Nevertheless, that is the work that must be done.
A Practical Approach
You cannot take responsibility for all your thoughts at once, of course. Some are deep down, working very subtly in the unconscious out of long-held beliefs, and you're not even aware of them. Others are arising here and now; these are the ones you can deal with.
What helps most is to simply persevere in the willingness to be here now in love, and when thoughts come along and take over (robbing you of present-moment awareness), you simply observe what has happened, what these thoughts are about and what responses they set in motion. If they activate the an anxious response, or move you into preoccupation so that you're out of touch with the moment, you see this, acknowledge it, and just say, "Oh, I've gotten caught up." Say a short prayer for whatever your concern has been, asking God to care for it now (called "turning it over" in 12 Step groups), and then move on. Just withdraw your attention from that line of thoughts. Drop them! They'll linger for awhile, like heat in a burner that has just lost its fire, but after awhile they will cool. Then will come the next level of distraction, preoccupation, etc., and you deal with it the same way. That's what discernment is really all about, and it goes on all day every day.
Perhaps there will be thoughts that you just can't drop as described above. Sometimes people have had negative thoughts drilled into them for so long that these patterns seem to have a life of their own. When you discover one of these--whether it be an addiction, or an attachment to approval, or shame--you might need to get some help, or undertake very focused, formal exercises to uproot these from your psyche. The simple rule of thumb is that if you can't do it on your own, get some help. You would do this if you had a toothache that wouldn't go away, so do the same with emotional aches that just don't go away. The therapeutic process and the formal exercises you undertake will be most helpful if they focus on understanding what this pattern is, how it operates, what consequences you pay, how you give consent to it, and how you can withdraw consent. Re-living traumatic events associated with all this might happen, but not always. This cannot be predicted, but it is worth the risk.
Ignatius of Loyola developed a method of daily examination of consciousness that his Jesuits have been using for centuries. So important was this practice that he is reported to have said that if he had no time to do both the examen and his prayer, he would do the examen.
There are a variety of approaches to doing the examen. What follows is a rather simplified version:
At the end of the day, prayerfully review your day and its events. When did you feel close to God? When do you stray from God, going off in your own direction in willfulness? What feelings are you left with? What unfinished business? What concerns still require your prayer? What unhealthy beliefs did you act out of? You can do this in an informal way, perhaps keying in on only one or two of these questions. Ask God to forgive you for wrongs done, give thanks for graces noticed, and pray for strength and guidance.
See also http://www.americancatholic.org/Newsletters/CU/ac0303.asp for a more detailed explanation and approach to the Examen.
Reflection and Discussion
1. What parts of this conference were helpful to you? What part(s) do you struggle with, or disagree with?
2. Share some of your experiences in dealing with thoughts and inner movements.
3. Do the Consciousness Examen for a week and share what you've discovered . . . changes within yourself that you've noticed.
I just screwed up a post, so I'll try again.
I'm wondering where solitude and silence enter into this topic....is it a gift, a charism, a grace? I've found myself in enforced solitude for a number of years now because of a chronic illness. It was extremely painful at first, and I experienced all kinds of emotions and psychological distresses arise that needed working through and healing. I noticed a change eventually, in that I prefered the solitude and experienced joy and deeper love in its midst. More recently has silence beckoned me and I have found a sweetness to it. My movie watching which was something of an addiction became annoying with it's sounds, so for a time I watched it with subtitles so I didn't have to listen to the sound. Then even the picture was too "noisey". I find silence drawing me into itself. It's as if the silence has become the prayer.
I have, fortunately, a terrific spirtual director so that I don't go over the deep end, but am wondering what people on this forum think about this, or if anyone else has experienced the same kind of journey. I can remember as a little child loving the silence and the sounds of nature, and as an adult have always wondered why people talk so incessantly about what seemed to me to be nothing, and feeling very left out and socially inept because of it.....
Anyway, I've enjoyed this forum immensely, though I've participated little....
I found this all extremely interesting; it also sounds so easy, but I know that it is not. I am very good at negative thoughts - I am a very negative person. Can it really be true that I have it within me to change that?
"Share some of your experiences in dealing with thoughts and inner movements."
Until now the way I deal with thoughts are to share them. I try to tell people exactly what I am thinking but am often mis-understood. Sometimes however, it works and the thoughts go away but often at the expense of upsetting someone which I suppose comes under the heading of 'going off in your own direction in willfulness' .I will just have to have a go at daily examination.
In answer to Carole - hi Carole: I too find noise difficult. Last year when I went to the monestery, the monks had no room so I stayed with the sisters. Meal times at the monks was always a time of sharing and getting to know the other guest; at the sisters meal times are in silence. At the beginning of the week I found this difficult but by the end I found myself getting annoyed when a group came to lunch and did not keep the 'rule' - I had learnt to enjoy meals in silence.
In our church it has become the thing to have services with sketches and lots of music etc. I love music and enjoy singing, indeed I am in a the choir of another church (a RC one but we only sing on special occassions) but I cannot take the non-stop noise of these modern services. People enter the church chatting and leave in the same way. Even intersessions are non-stop noise; people say there will be pauses but there rarely are. During Communion there is a group who sing non-stop. Private prayer and thoughts are, for me, impossible. Luckily we have a non sung Eucharist every other week with a very small group of people where there is quiet and I prefer this but of course it's not so good for the whole'community' thing.
Phil, I enjoyed the story of your family’s dilemna on whether or not to move to Kansas. I’ll bet your extended families reacted as if you were moving to Siberia! Kansas is certainly a long cry from Baton Rouge. What an adventure that must have been for all of you!
I worked with several counselors over the years trying to rid myself of anxious thoughts. The worst was when I would wake up early in the morning and have these anxious thoughts that would play over and over in my head. I couldn’t go back to sleep and I couldn’t seem to let go of those thoughts. It wasn’t fun.
I really didn’t think I was a candidate for anxiety medication, even though both of my parents AND both of my older siblings, were taking medication for generalized anxiety. I’ll even admit, that at that time I saw myself as somewhat superior to the rest of my family because I wasn’t using medication.
But I did have migraines that were getting worse as I got older. I finally agreed to take a daily preventive medication. The medication worked to prevent migraines, but it was ALSO helpful to people with anxiety disorders.
As you may have guessed the medication helped prevent migraines and was VERY helpful with my anxiety. I no longer woke up early in the morning with the “anxious thought tape” playing over and over in my head. And when I did have an anxious thought, I WAS able to let it just pass on by. The really cool thing was, that later on in the day I wasn’t able to even remember what I had been anxious about earlier .
Phil, you probably see medications as a last resort, but my story shows how helpful they can be. My social-worker friend tells me that the medication wouldn’t have worked as well for me if I hadn’t done the work with the counselors previously. And remember---I was the queen of the self-help books, and had tried really hard to psych myself out of having those anxious thoughts. And I had tried to PRAY them away, also.
I really think God wanted me on the medication, because he had to drag me in the back door kicking and screaming via the migraines. I would have NEVER gone on the medication for anxiety, alone.
I liked the simple examen at the end of the conference. I haven’t tried using it, but I intend to.
Carole, you asked about solitude and where it fits in. I’m not sure, but I've have read some things which confused the issue for me.
First of all, I LOVE solitude and quiet. Our daughter left for college last Fall and neither my husband or I had ANY problems with the empty nest. My husband’s chronic illness is made worse by stress, so he actually felt better after our daughter left. And I certainly enjoyed coming home to the quiet house. What we didn’t anticipate was how much better the two of us got along. I found myself looking forward to that time when the two of us would prepare dinner and I sure never saw THAT coming!
I’ve had more time to pursue interests of my own, since I’m not attending school functions ie sports, plays, banquets. I rejoined the church choir and trained to be a cantor at Mass. Sounds great, right??
Well, somewhere along the way I read this statement.
“If you live alone, whose feet will you wash?”
I don’t know where I read it, but it did stay with me.
Also, Ron Rolheiser wrote something last Fall in one of his Advent reflections. Here is part of it:
The gospels ask us to surrender our individualism, our fears, our security, our need to stand out and be special. They ask us to surrender our agendas, ambition, anger, and all those things that keep us standing alone or apart.
Sadly, this surrender isn’t seen in many lives, even in religious life, especially as we age and we begin to claim more and more private space for ourselves. We need to ask ourselves: Are we becoming too comfortable being alone? Is it healthy to want your own bed for yourself at night, your own space for yourself during the day, and personal fulfillment in your projects and agendas? Is it healthy to want so unshared a life?
(I dunno……is it?)
I was bothered by Fr. Rolheiser’s reflection and after we read it aloud that morning during our faculty prayer time the general attitude among the teachers was “boo…….hiss.”
Granted there are many people living alone who have no control over it. My mother has been a widow now for one year and she hates living alone. She’s unhappy and bitter and says she has nothing to look forward to. She certainly hasn’t chosen to live alone.
Anybody have any thoughts on Fr. Rolheiser’s question? And if we live alone, whose feet WILL we wash?
PS I survived my first experience of being the Cantor at Mass last weekend. I felt very confident and was only a tiny bit nervous. I'm happy that I wasn't afraid to take such a risk at age 50 .
Carole, in terms of this series topic, discernment, I believe silence and solitude are essential for one to get in touch with their own inner thoughts, feelings and desires. We need to be clear to ourselves about what these are before we can discern which, among them, might be a calling from God. What you describe sounds like a calling to a contemplative lifestyle. It's not something you would have chosen on your own, but the circumstances of your life brought you to a love for silence and solitude.
Sue, I agree that it's tricky business to tell people exactly what we're thinking. Depending on their response, that might not help to rid oneself of disquieting thoughts. I hope you give the examen a try for awhile to see what happens to your thought processes. Maybe some of them can be dealt with before God without telling them to other people. A good rule of thumb would be that if the thoughts pertain to your relationship with that person, then it would be more appropriate to tell them. What think ye?
Anne, I'm glad to hear you've found relief from the migraines and anxious thinking. Medication can indeed be a help, along with counseling, spiritual practice, exercise, diet, etc. Keep working at it to see what's at the bottom, here. Try simply re-focusing into the present moment in a spirit of loving gratitude. That in itself is the death of many negative thoughts.
Re. the Rolheiser quote: I think it's a good one, as living alone can remove one from relationships more than if you're with another(s). That's where the earlier topic on charisms comes in, however, as these gifts move us to some kind of interaction in community. So you might think of charisms as different ways of "washing feet," as they are service-oriented, though each in their own unique way. It seems Fr. Rolheiser is just warning against a kind of complacent inactivity. Nothing for you to worry about, I'm sure.
This talk on thoughts is a hard one for me.
Since I have been unemployed for many months, my thoughts have been very difficult to deal with. It's hard to have positive thoughts when you have invested so much time trying to make 2 cateers work(at separate times) and they have both been a disaster. It's hard not to feel like a failure. I know it is not all my fault. But eventually, you lose the drive and zeal you once had.
Reading sacred books or books on spirituality
helps me for a short while , but I can't read all day. I have a hard time motivating myself getting much of anything done. I get pretty lonely and feel better when I am with people. So I try to find people to do things with. But that is sometimes hard during the day. People are too busy to do things wih me. Or it has to be scheduled a month to 6 weeks in advance.
I have prayed for direction, but I feel like I am frozen. I haven't come up with much of any options to choose from. My future is far as having a career is a nebulous void. I don't want to spend alot of money on school again, since I have spent so much already, with no job to show for it.
I have signed up to do a Spiritual Formation Program in the fall. But this will be mostly a volunteer ministry, not a paid employment.
Sorry to hear of your struggles, Carolyn. It's good that you're paying close attention to your inner life and trying to find creative ways to deal with your situation. In terms of discernment, the goal is to get a sense of where the thoughts are leading, and to avoid consenting to those that enhance anxiety, shame, alienation, etc. Consenting to those that lead in a positive direction is also called for. See if you can learn more about not just the thoughts and where they lead, but the consents you're giving.
Spirital work isn't always the answer to our problems, however. Sometimes we need to avail ourselves of other resources. Anne mentioned medications, and counseling can be a help as well. In your own situation, it sounds like career counseling or some kind of employment placement services might be helpful. I'm sure you've probably considered that, but if not, it could be helpful. Sometimes just taking any kind of decent job -- even if it's not what you've gone to school for -- is at least a first step to something else down the road.
Let us know how it goes.
Well, here I am in the middle of a talk on serenity? My 10 year old granddaughter is visiting and became ill today. I am at my computer at work while my husband entertains her for an hour. I was hoping to read, as I did, that this conference would be open indefinitely. I read a quote this week in one of my daily meditation books. It said "God's will is not finding out the right answer, but making mistakes and learning from them." That kind of message enhances peace, calmness, non judgmentalism, etc.
"Try refocusing into the present moment in a spirit of loving
I grew up in a family whose response to almost everything was worry, fear, and believing in the concept of "not enough to go around." Negativity reigned. After working a 12 Step program for the last 18 years or so, I began to appreciate how negative, careful, and rigid I was. When I visit with my sisters today, I get a sense of how ungrateful they are and they have much to be grateful for. I used to take so many things for granted. I had some vision problems a few years ago and today I am so grateful for eyesight. I have a good husband and a very good life. I am grateful for all the gifts I have. When I feel that old depression coming on, I really try to think of what I am grateful for.
I love solitude. The last 14 years I worked 4 days a week with Friday's off. This last year, I was asked to go 5 days a week. I really loved that Friday off to work in my garden or just get recentered. My week's are much more tense and harried during the school year, but I remind myself to be grateful that I can still work and be productive. I think it is surrendering to God's will after I knew that I couldn't do anything about it. I try to remember than anytime a door is closed, God opens a window. Now don't get me wrong. I have problems and do not live on a rosy cloud, but life is good today.
Anne, I too availed counseling. I love the 12 Steps. I love spirutuality and I take a daily antidepressant. I have a family history of depression and I, myself, battle obsessive compulsive personality. I am thankful to God and modern science and a small daily dose of medication helps me to "let go" enough to work a program. I have gotten to the bottom of many of my issues, however, genetics play a part also. I sought counseling and it helped me tremendously. Medication helps me stop the incessant worrying and not being able to let go. I am grateful that it is available and it works.
I have enjoyed this summer session and will continue to check in as long as it is available. I really appreciate the outline for the Consciousness Examen, Phil. It gave me a tangible outline to practice a daily Step 10, which I am very neglectful at. I have not went to American Catholic.org, but I will. Thanks everyone.
Looks like we have something else in common, since my family is predisposed to generalized anxiety. After I had my second baby my mom told me that I'd better not have any more kids, because she didn't think my dad could handle it (anxiety-wise) .
Our school nurse only works 4 days a week. She is employed through the Health Department and she just told them she would only work 4 days. So they send another nurse on Fridays. She doesn't have a computer in her office, though.
Initially, I had mixed feelings about the medication and how well it worked. My spiritual director told me to bless the medication and ask that it make me even healthier and them simply trust. She said that since I am so independent, the medication would be one small way to be dependent. Interesting way of looking at it, isn't it?
I'm reading a book now called "Surviving Depression: A Catholic Approach." My mom is very depressed right now. My dad has been gone for a year, and it's very hard for her to be alone. Mom is 88. It's hard to start new things at her age, you know? Yesterday as I was reading the book it occurred to me that I didn't have to feel like it was my responsibility to "fix" her. She mostly needs company and somebody to talk to. She doesn't need to "snap out of it" just because I want her to. I don't need to be so impatient with her depression. She just needs somebody to listen and to understand her....or at least try to understand.
I'm leaving for an 8-day retreat on Thursday. I'm really looking forward to it. Wish it would cool off, but it doesn't look like it will.
Thanks for the response, Anne. It is always comforting to know we are not unique and that different. My mom was 70 when my father died and that first year she became almost immobile with depression. It must be very difficult to begin to lose everything and be forced to learn to let go as we age. I know I am learning to let go of accomplishing everything I want to, which has always been a lot. I don't have the energy to stay up past 10:00 o'clock anymore. I remember when I used to refinish furniture until 2:00 am, while my children slept, and then go to work the next morning. Those days are long gone. Hope you enjoy that retreat!
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