Lectio Divina and Spiritual Formation

It can be overwhelming to prepare a capstone-like summation of coursework in discussion form at the end of a class. As noted in the course shell, we have been building a plan of action for our personalized “spiritual practice” since the first session. I love the question, “What is your plan for a preferred spiritual future?” Last winter I told my pastor, “I want to grow spiritually in the next six months more than I have grown so far in my Christian life.” This class started at a time close to the end of that six-month period. I believe this is no coincidence.

I related well to the experience of James Bryan Smith described in “The Jogging Monk and the Exegesis of the Heart.” For most of my life, I thought I needed to “understand” something before I could do what it suggested. I was told this was merely a well-camouflaged form of procrastination. Thankfully, this week’s exercise proves otherwise. Our approach to the Word of God must fit the task at hand: epistemology, hermeneutics, exegesis, exposition, word studies. But we cannot take an “investigative” approach when reading Scripture for devotion, instruction, or edification. As the monk in the article told Smith, “You cannot make your­self sleep, but you can cre­ate the con­di­tions that allow sleep to hap­pen. All I want you to do is cre­ate the con­di­tions: Open your Bible, read it slow­ly, lis­ten to it, and reflect on it.” For me, learning this approach is the capstone for my experience in this class. It is exactly what I needed to learn at just the right time.

I chose to read and meditate on a key verse for me: “[F]or God did not give us a spirit of timidity but a spirit of power and love and self-control” (2 Tim. 1:7, NRSV).

What did it teach you?

No matter the need or the situation, it is God who provides. No longer must I be a “coward,” as I was for most of my life. For it is not my power, but the power God has been instilled in me, that allows me to stand firm in boldness. I also learned that courage comes not only from having a “power source” but from soundness of mind—having understanding and judgment to weather the circumstance. 

What did it say to you?

I have used this verse for inspiration and encouragement for several years. It became a great source of comfort during recovery from active addiction. I took much stock in its promise. God has blessing me with courage and soundness of mind I need to let go of my past and my finite solutions and turn to God for strength and wisdom. It also spoke to me from an apologetic perspective. As I prepare for ministry in evangelism and apologetics, the power and Spirit of God will embolden me to stand against the isms prevalent in today’s post-Christian culture and equip me to make a defense for the hope that is in me that Jesus Christ is the Messiah.

Were you struck by any­thing?

I was able to see a thread running through Scripture, from Jonah and Joseph through David and Samson; from Matthew and Stephen through Paul and Peter—men who stood steadfast in faith and courage, not doubt and fear. I recognized God’s providence in every situation. I also saw that this verse speaks of the Spirit that God gave us. It is this “spirit” Paul was expressing to Timothy in the first epistle. The first seven verses of 2 Timothy 1 are addressed to a man of God, doing the work of an evangelist—a category that includes all who are called of God to serve, even in the twenty-first century. The same power, love, and soundness of mind available to Paul and Timothy is available to me today.

Did you expe­ri­ence God in your reading?

Yes. I had a strong sense of His presence and inner peace. I was aware that I will stand and serve God no matter what it might cost me. I sensed He knows I am willing to die for my Christian belief; that I would never renounce Him to avoid persecution, torture, or even death. I became emotional, realizing I have truly begun to see that I am crucified with Christ. I could see two “sides” of me, and felt strongly that I am “removed” from my sins as far as the east is from the west.

Concluding Thoughts

I am so happy this class reminded me of the five steps of lectio devina which I learned about in my class on hermeneutics. The process begins with reading a passage slowly and carefully, then opening a dialog with God about what I read. I have always enjoyed meditating on Scripture, but I have a better sense lately of the need for doing so as a daily routine. Contemplation involves focusing on a key thought or word from what I read and waiting on God to quicken it in my spirit. Resting in God’s presence is key to knowing His will. Then, I can “go and do likewise.” I feel honored and blessed to be called to ministry. For years, I thought I was lost to God, never to return. I felt “too damaged.” But God uses the broken. 

Meditation Can Help Us Experience The Presence of God

Since the time of the desert fathers in the third and fourth centuries, Christians have practiced meditation as a way of experiencing and responding to God’s presence in their early lives. The desert fathers were Orthodox Christian hermits, ascetics and monks who lived mainly in the Scetes desert of Egypt beginning around the third century A.D. These mystics have left a body of writings that contain trustworthy and encouraging insights into how meditation can help us experience the presence of God in our lives. A hermit said, “Take care to be silent. Empty your mind. Attend to your meditation in the fear of God, whether you are resting or at work. If you do this, you will not fear the attacks of the demons.”

Meditation is defined as “the action or practice of meditating.” To meditate is to spend time in quiet thought for religious purposes or relaxation. I’ve heard it said that to meditate is to “do nothing.” Yeah, you say, but we’re always doing something, right? Yes. Meditation involves focusing one’s thoughts. It means to ponder over or reflect on something. Meditation implies a definite focusing of one’s thoughts on something so as to understand it deeply. Attention and focus are hard to come by. So many distractions, both from within and from without.

Distracted by email, cell phones, the ping of a new text message, bad news on television, and the stresses of work, of relationships and family, it is easy to be overwhelmed, stressed and miss the extraordinary gift of being alive. Our bodies’ break down under the onslaught of stress – insomnia, anxiety, depression, and all chronic disease is made worse by unremitting stress. What matters most in life is the quality of our experience, the ability to be awake to what is real and true in our lives, for the difficult and the happy times, to be awake to each person we touch, to our own experience, to the moment we are in, to the simple, sweet, and alive gifts of a smile, a touch, a kind deed, the breeze on our skin, or a firefly flickering in the early summer night.

Pain is inevitable. Loss is inevitable. Death, illness, war, and disaster have always been and will always be part of the human condition. Yet within it, I wondered as a young man, was there a way to understand suffering in a different light, to break the cycle of suffering? These are some of the ultimate distractions we face. They will rob us of the present. Steal our current experiences from us. You see, there is a way to be more awake, to see things as they are, to notice life as it is and to savor it, to love it, to wake up with gratitude, lightness, and celebration for the magic of life no matter what our circumstance. Life is always there, and the trick is simply to notice.

This is harder than it sounds, because it requires us to be patient with ourselves, to love ourselves, even all the ugly, petty, small thoughts. It requires us to create calm within the chaos through non-judgmental awareness. Most of us have no clue how to do this. We know about wrong, and blame, and consequence, and fear. We know how to wallow in self-pity. To let our emotions tell us what’s so, as if they were factual. Emotions are nearly the farthest thing from the truth. Emotions lie. Emotions keep us distracted, stuck, telling us this experience is just more of the same old crap. Everything begins to look the same. Our tolerance goes out the window. We have no capacity, at that point, to accept what is happening to us. We tell ourselves this current experience cannot possibly mean anything different from the last time we went through it.

The point of meditation, of doing nothing, is not an end in itself, but a way to calm the mind, to see the true nature of things, and reduce the impact of suffering while increasing love, kindness, wisdom, fearlessness, and sympathy. From that stillness life becomes richer, your actions more clear, your words more direct and powerful, and your capacity to be fully engaged in life enhanced. It is not a retreat from life, but a way to go fully into life and cultivate your own power and happiness.

The benefits of meditation have been well proven by science. Mediation reduces chronic pain, blood pressure, headaches, anxiety and depression. It helps you lose weight, lowers cholesterol, reduces heart rate and breathing, increases sports performance, boosts immune function, relieves insomnia, increases serotonin, improves creativity, optimizes brain waves, helps in learning, focuses attention, increases productivity, enhances memory, and more.

Sounds good. But what do I do? The good news is that all you need is a few minutes and a place to sit and be quiet (you can do this anywhere). You don’t need fancy equipment or a “yoga” room addition to your house. In fact, the only thing I would recommend you start with is a cheap egg timer from the dollar store. Meditation will feel nearly impossible to accomplish at first. You won’t last but a minute. Your mind will wander. Within seconds you will be somewhere else, planning out your day, wondering if you left the oven on, realizing you forgot to put the garbage at the curb. So get your egg timer, turn the dial to one minute and just let go. Think of nothing. Listen to your breathing. Feel your body. Keep doing this once a morning for a week. Try adding a minute the following week.

Here are some simple instructions for mindfulness mediation you can try yourself.

  1. Sit in a comfortable position. Try to sit in the same place each day. Avoid positions that you might fall asleep in.
    a. The back is long and supports itself.
    b. Shoulders are relaxed downward, the neck is long, and the chin is pointing neither up nor down.
    c. The face is relaxed.
  2. Begin to breathe (preferably through the nostrils). Feel the belly rise, the ribs expand, and the slight movement in the collarbones and shoulders as the breath moves upward. Feel the exhalation.
  3. Focus on one aspect of the breath.
    a. The movement of air in and out of the nostrils.
    b. Or the lifting and falling of the belly.
  4. Watch that one aspect of the breath.
    a. When the mind wanders, gently bring it back to the breath and the aspect you have chosen to watch.
    b. Do this as many times as you need to.
    c. There is no such thing as a good or bad meditation. (Good and bad are judgments, events in the mind – just note them and go back to the breathing.)
  5. Start with 1-5 minutes and then increase the time until you can sit for 30 minutes.

One of the most common misconceptions about meditation is that it’s about making your mind go blank. I don’t know where this idea originated, but it’s pervasive and long-lasting. I think it may take at least another generation or two of spiritual practice before that notion goes to the scrapheap of ideas that it deserves to rest in. Certainly, in meditation we want to reduce the amount of thinking that goes on. Most of us are plagued with thoughts that arise seemingly without cause.

When meditation brings us to the point where self-talk ceases, the mind is anything but blank. Instead it’s full — full of an awareness of sensations, feelings, emotions, and images. Guess what the Buddha calls this? Mindfulness. We need to get our mind so full of experiencing the present that there is not room for inner self-talk. You know, that dangerous generating or reinforcing of unhelpful emotions. So, no, it’s not contradictory to say that meditation isn’t about making your mind go blank. Meditation can help us to reduce, or even eliminate, inner self-talk for periods of time. Meditation is about developing mindfulness, or “mind-full-ness.”

I dare you to give this a try. I believe it is the first step to clearing out the clutter and making room for God. It is through a disciplined meditation program that we can learn to start hearing from God. Good luck. Oh, and have fun.

Wherever You Go, There You Are!

I read a book of the same title years ago. It was mindfulness meditation in everyday life based upon Zen Buddhism. I am a Christian, but I like the idea of being Zen-like. That is, being present to what is. Like it or not, this moment is all we really have to work with. Yet we all too easily conduct our lives as if forgetting momentarily where we are, and that we are in what we are already in. When we don’t pay attention to what is present, we momentarily lose touch with ourselves and with the full extent of what is possible at the time. Instead, we fall into a robot-like way of seeing and thinking and doing. Here’s the thing: If we are not careful, those clouded moments can stretch out and become most of our lives.

We need to learn to actually feel the present moment. This is not easy, because we are often distracted by thoughts and memories. We think we’re paying attention, but we’re somewhere else. When this happens due to horrific past abuse, patients go into a fugue state. This is called dissociative disorder. I worked for a few years in an inpatient psychiatric unit for women who were diagnosed with multiple personality disorder. It was nearly impossible for these women to stay present. Triggers would cause their personality to change, and they would become some other alter personality. This would also involve the belief that they were somewhere else. In fact, they would even think they were in a previous time. This was their coping mechanism for dealing with past abuse.

Only by feeling the present moment can we accept the truth that is our life, learn from it, and move on. Instead, we are often preoccupied with the past, with what has already happened, or with a future that hasn’t happened yet. I’ve heard it said that if we have one foot in yesterday and another foot in tomorrow we’re pissing on today. Believe it or not, our thoughts have the ability to define what we see and what we don’t see. What we do and don’t do. We lock ourselves into a personal fiction that we already know who we are, that we know where we are going, and that we know what is happening. But we are actually engulfed in thoughts, fantasies, impulses, mostly about the past and about the future. This veils our direction and the very ground we’re standing on.

The work of waking up from these situations is the work of meditation. It is not an easy thing, sitting and doing nothing. Thinking about nothing. We tend to immediately go off on some tangent about an event or an emotion or an idea. I was told to buy an egg timer and set it for one minute. Then try thinking of nothing until the bell rings. I was to keep doing this until I made it to one minute. I was told to then try it for two minutes, three minutes, and so on. Not knowing that you are living in a dream or distraction is what the Buddhists call ignorance or mindlessness. Being in touch with this “not knowing” is mindfulness. Despite how hard it is to achieve this, it is worth the work. There are great rewards. We end up with a certain wakefulness or present-moment awareness. We then have the potential of seeing more deeply into cause and effect and the interconnectedness of things.

A full life is painted with broad brushstrokes. It can be said that many paths lead to understanding and wisdom. Is this contrary to the message of Jesus Christ that He is the way, the truth and the life? I think not. I have a book on Jesus and the Buddha. It shows us how mindful meditation can get us to a point where we are present with God. Certainly, we have to be ready to hear God. We also have to be ready for meditation. We have to come to it at the right point in our life, at a point where we are ready to listen. This is hard work.

What is required in order to experience mindfulness is a willingness to look deeply at your present moments, no matter what they hold, in a spirit of exploration and acceptance. You have to be open to the possibilities of what might be. Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden, “Only that day dawns to which we are awake.” This mostly has to do with being “in touch.” It’s a genuine way of being. A diminished awareness of the present moment inevitably creates problems for us through our unconscious and automatic behaviors, often driven by deep-seated fears and insecurities. I am a recovering alcoholic and drug addict, and have come to realize that being drunk or high makes it even harder to be aware of the present. It completely clouds your experience. It causes execution of poor judgment and a lack of ability to see how your actions are connected inextricably to the common good.

When we’re stuck, we’re out of touch and we lack confidence in ourselves in the moment. Mindfulness provides a simple route for getting ourselves unstuck, back in touch with our own wisdom and vitality. It is a way to take charge of the direction and quality of our own lives, including our relationships within the family, our relationships to work and to the larger world and planet, and most fundamentally, our relationship with ourselves as people. This is actually the direct opposite of taking life, our family and our friends for granted. Without this mindfulness, we are severely limited in our perspective on what it means to be a person and how we are connected to each other and to the world around us.

I like to think of mindfulness as the art of conscious living. The most important point is to be yourself and not try to become anything that you are not already. Mindfulness is fundamentally about being in touch with your own deepest nature and letting it flow out of you unimpeded. So mindfulness will not conflict with any other religious tenets. It is simply a practical way to be more in touch with the fullness of your being.