Get Centered in the New Year with Centering Prayer: Spiritual Practice of the Month

One of the things that makes me laugh when I read love stories, whether adult or YA fiction, is that moment when the boy and girl or man and woman kiss for the first time and the woman’s mind just . . . empties. All those fizzing synapses get burned out by the sheer electric power of the meeting-of-the-mouths, and all thought ceases. Not just all rational thought, but all thought. Period.

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This is in some ways a lovely fantasy. The problem is, I don’t think this is the way it actually works. At least not to most women I know of. And this is not a drag on the guys we’ve been kissing. It’s simply to point out that, anecdotally speaking, women are capable of thinking of many things at once and even the most mind-blowing kiss does not negate this ability. Perhaps it’s our more bilaterally-symmetrical brains and the fact that our two brain hemispheres talk to each other more.

I remember an old episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, where Data the android gets a human girlfriend. It’s doomed to fail, of course, but the death knell of the relationship tolls when she kisses Data and asks what he’s thinking. He matter-of-factly reels off a laundry list of about 15 things, including the limit of pressure he can put on her lips without caving her face in with his superhuman robotic strength. Her face falls and she walks away. She knows what it means that she doesn’t totally occupy his thoughts: he doesn’t love her.

When I watched the show a teenager I thought this storyline was romantic and star-crossed and bittersweet, even if more than a shade past believable (specifically, actor Brent Spiner’s pasty shade of pancake makeup, back when extreme pallor was supposed to indicate “android” and not “hot teenage vampire”). Poor girl, always falling for the unavailable guy! Poor Data, longing to be human but unable to understand love.

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The skin tone dreams are made of.

Don’t get me wrong, I think it was a lousy idea for Ensign-of-the-Week to try to date a robot, and I have no idea whether it’s true for guys that physical contact makes your brain spontaneously combust, but I know for a fact that women can be kissing their significant other and enjoying the experience while simultaneously running through their grocery list, their best friend’s relationship woes, that upcoming project deadline, the sale at Zulily, and whether they have clean unmentionables for tomorrow. Sure, the kiss works better – a lot better – when your attention is undivided, but generally speaking, that single-minded focus happens because you decide you want it to, not by some sort of hormonal fiat over your gray matter. You can tell your brain to shut up, if you want, but you’re still giving yourself over to the moment with the full assent of your thought and will.

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Remember Ghost? I don’t care what the CGI and camera angles are telling you, Demi’s character is perfectly aware she’s kissing a dead guy borrowing the body of another woman. (For a gender-swap variation on this plot, read Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones.) She might not care, but that’s different from her brain turning completely to mush and disconnecting her from reality. Even if Patrick Swazye’s lips are literally glowing with light from heaven. (Which would give most anyone trouble, I think.)

What I am working up to saying, in a roundabout fashion, is that, contrary to years of received wisdom from Danielle Steele, Hollywood, and Team Edward, it’s hard to shut off your brain. It’s hard if you’re a woman. It’s hard if you live in a city, especially one of loud-talking, fast-moving overachievers like New York. It’s hard if you have any kind of stress in your life. It’s probably hard if you’re a guy, too, but I don’t have the same kind of personal experience with that situation.

So how to quiet all that noise in your head and just . . . be present? Especially during the first days of the year, which are – let’s face it – kind of like the hangover to the just-concluded holiday season. You know what I mean. Christmas and New Years are over but their detritus is still with you – your dried up Christmas tree, shedding needles faster than your Uncle George’s scalp is divesting itself of its hair, needs to be hauled to the curb (or, in the case of my tabletop Charlie Brown-esque model, smooshed back into its box and schlepped to the basement), the ornaments returned to their packing, and those peppermint bark and champagne-induced love handles need to be melted posthaste by some New Year’s juice cleansing and Soul Cycle. Oh, and you’re back to work and the kids are back in school, but the government is still shut down.

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How, amidst all this bustle and chaos, can you find time to be with God, to invite him to step through your busyness and defenses and consent to his presence the way you would to a kiss?

One way is to practice centering prayer. This ancient practice is designed to shut down distractions from inside and out, to help you become completely open to God. Here’s how it’s done:

First, find a quiet place and get comfortable in a seated position. Then, breathe. Slowly, in and out, becoming aware of your breath as it flows in and out of your body. Feel the rise and fall of your chest, your breath slowing, your body gradually loosening, your thoughts slowing down to the pace of your respiration.

Now, choose a focus word or phrase, something that will help anchor you in the moment, a word that resonates with you and where you are with God. For me, the word is often “Holy.” Begin to repeat the word in your head as you breathe, so that the word falls into place with the rhythm of your body.

Then – and this, for me, is the hardest part! – try to empty your mind of thought. You’re trying to achieve inner silence, a total openness to God and God alone. This takes practice! Almost certainly a billion little thoughts will zoom in like industrious bees. Rather than trying to swat them away with your mental fly swatter, simply notice them, without guilt or frustration, and go back to your anchor word for a time. Repeat it until you reclaim your focus and inner stillness. When you’re ready, let the word go and try to empty your mind again and simply be with God. Pray as long as you feel able to sustain your centered state.

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If you need a bit more support, there’s a Centering prayer app! You can use it to frame your practice with music and scripture or to set a timer. The organization that created the app, Contemplative Outreach, also offers online communities and workshops for those interested in centering prayer.

Title photo credit: Ilya Naymushin / Reuters via theatlantic.com

Find me on Instagram @ravishedbylight.

Take Your Meds For Jesus: How to Turn Any Daily Routine into a Prescription for Contentment (Spiritual Practice of the Month)

 

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This post is part of my ongoing series on monthly spiritual practices. I’ve adapted this practice from friend, fellow spiritual director, and glowing newlywed Kimberly Malone. Her original suggestion was to turn taking your daily medication into an opportunity to relinquish control to God.

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I’ve always aspired to be a shower and go kind of gal: Throw on some leggings and a comfy shirt, run a comb through my hair, slap on some sunscreen, and run out the door looking as glowy and pure as a Dove commercial. (Except clothed. Clothing is good.)

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The ideal. (*Not what I look like in the a.m. Or really ever.)

Unfortunately, God had other plans for me: a DEFCON-threat level assortment of allergies and skin issues including year-round eczema that ranges from mildly irritating to infuriatingly itchy. As a result, I have a twice-daily routine that includes oral medications, nasal spray, and smearing various over-the-counter and prescription creams on myself. By the end of all this, I’m about as greasy as an arctic seal dipped in Crisco, but my skin will still be dried out within a few hours.

Then, I have to add in the time it takes me to deal with contact lenses, the allergy eye drops, and the retainers I’ve worn since high school. At bedtime, I kick my routine up a notch by adding in the nightly warm compress that keeps my tear ducts from backing up and swelling my left eyelid up to the size of Jupiter. I didn’t know you could have both oily tears and dry eyes, but, hey, I’m a complicated woman.

 

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The Reality: Hot Mess Barbie (Except Asian. And itchy. And not a 5’11” Double D.)

Basically, by the time I get myself to bed in the evening, my husband is already having a cigar with his BFF the Sandman over scotch, a cheese platter, and a roaring fire.

(Does scotch go with cheese? I actually have no idea, since I think scotch is a gustatory experience somewhere between cough syrup and drinking gasoline.)

But back to the spiritual part of this whole mess. Although that’s a misleading statement, because the truth is there is no division between the spiritual part of our lives and all the rest of it. God is in all of it, from the mundane to the awe-inspiring.

That’s why I love my friend Kimberly’s suggestion to turn your medication routine into a time of giving up control to God. And it’s why I am adapting it into this month’s spiritual practice. Medication is not usually something I approach with surrender. It’s something I do grudgingly – because I have to. I dislike the time, the expense, and most of all, the daily reminder that my body is flawed and that I am literally physically uncomfortable in my own skin.

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But what if I approached taking and applying my meds not with tolerance at best, resentment at worst? What if I spent that time giving thanks for the ways that God is present to me each and every day, and especially in my body? What if as I took a pill or slathered on a cream, I offered up control of my body and my life to the Holy Spirit? If I was less focused on the way my body falls short and instead marveled at how I am fearfully and wonderfully made? How God used my hands and my feet over the course of the day? How he might choose to use them tomorrow? What if I used this Thanksgiving season to be thankful for all the ways God is present in my life, even those things I’d rather avoid? How might God turn my grumbling into gratitude? My discontent into contentment?

While I’m going to apply this practice of surrender and gratitude to taking my meds, it can work in any daily routine you have, anything you might normally do by rote: Drinking your morning coffee, getting dressed, brushing teeth, tying shoes, folding laundry. Once you’ve identified the routine you want to invite God into, here is a simple, basic three-step prayer to follow on a daily basis.

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As you practice this discipline of relinquishing control and giving thanks, may God bring you new awareness of his gifts and grace in your life. And may your Thanksgiving season be blessed!

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Come find me on Instagram @ravishedbylight.