For most of us life is busy and full of stress. So often we don’t think we have time to slow down and look after our spiritual life. But this is precisely the time when it’s most important that we do so. It’s vital that we slow down for at least a few minutes each day and allow some ‘space’ in our life for the spiritual. The good news is that even a very small amount of time spent daily on a simple spiritual practice can have great benefits for us – spiritually of course, but also physically and emotionally. Here are some suggestions for simple spiritual exercises you can try that won’t take much time out of your busy life.
While these are practices that come from the Christian tradition most of them could be used regardless of whether or not you belong to any particular faith tradition. However, words like ‘prayer’, ‘meditation’ and ‘contemplation’ mean different things to different people and it means different things to people of various faith groups. For example, for faith groups who believe in a deity (as Christianity does), “prayer” generally refers to communication with God and/or deepening your relationship to God. For faith groups who do not subscribe to a belief in a deity, “prayer” can refer to a practice which leads to interior spiritual growth, inner transformation and transformation of consciousness and that involves a process of ego-transcendence or self-transcendence. But in either sense of the word there are many ways to pray – and not all (or even most) of the methods of prayer involve ‘words’. Likewise the words “meditation” and “contemplation” are used differently by different faiths. In this article I’ve used the word ‘meditation’ to mean emptying your thoughts and trying to be calm and open, and ‘contemplation’ to mean reflecting on meaning and significance (using your intellect to wrestle with spiritual truth and open yourself to new insights and inspiration).
Daily Awareness of the Spiritual dimension of your life:
Start your day with an ‘intention’ prayer: (This doesn’t even have to take any extra time out of your day!) Just before you get up in the morning or when you’re in the bathroom or getting dressed, run through the upcoming day in your head and ask God to guide and keep you throughout the coming day. “Lord, this is my day. These are my tasks, and these are my problems. Please be there with me and help me to get through it well and graciously.”
Or if that seems too much trying just saying a quick morning prayer to dedicate the day to God. For example:
A Morning Prayer (adapted from Iona) Lord, let your blessing be upon me as I begin this day with you. Confirm me in the truth by which I rightly live: confront me with the truth from which I wrongly turn. I ask not for what I want, but for what you know I need, as I offer this day and myself for you and to you in Jesus’ name. Amen
Try to find some ‘slow down’ times during the day (and we can all find some!) For example when walking from one place to another try walking more slowly, breathe more gently and be aware of your body as you move. Try to be mindful of your food when you eat. Instead of just ‘fuelling up’ while thinking about something else (or reading) be aware of what you are eating and enjoy it.
Throughout your day notice the ‘signals of transcendence’ which litter your everyday life. For example, notice the sunset, the light glinting on the ocean, a caterpillar crawling across your path. Hold them gently, and enjoy them and then bring them to mind again later in a quieter moment to think more about them and what they might mean for you.
End each day with a review of the day and what you are grateful for or would like to have done differently. Be gentle with yourself! This is not an excuse to beat yourself up, but an opportunity to be aware of the blessings you’ve received and the places where you’d like to work at being better. You might try keeping a ‘gratitude journal’. Each evening reflect on your day and write down one specific thing you are grateful for that day (the more specific the better – for example being thankful for the person that held the door open for you or the opportunity to go for a walk in the park rather than a generic ‘good’ like having a home)
Here are a few simple methods of prayer/meditation that you might find helpful:
Breathing: One of the most ancient forms of meditation practice is also the one that is always available to us – being aware of our breathing. Just take a few moments to focus on your breath. Breath slowly and more deeply (don’t hyperventilate!) and focus gently on each breath, in and out, in and out, allowing any other thoughts that enter your mind to fall away. If you find you are starting to hyperventilate then stop and return to your normal breathing pattern.
Centering Prayer: The technique is a very simple meditation practice, but like all methods it requires practice to get good at. Pick a word or very short phrase like peace, Abba, love, release or any other that is meaningful and helpful to you. Stay with the same word during the entire session. Sit in a comfortable position and open yourself to awareness of God’s presence in you. Gently release your thoughts so that you are creating an ‘empty’ place inside you for God to be present in. As thoughts arise silently say your word to yourself and release the thought. If your mind is still then don’t keep repeating your word. Use it only to ‘release’ your thoughts. If you’re new to this kind of meditation try setting a gentle alarm to let you know when the time you’ve set for yourself is up so you don’t fret about how long you’ve been sitting there. Start with 5 or 10 minutes and increase the length as you can or wish to.
Meditation/Contemplation using an object to focus on: You can use any meaningful object to help focus your attention and help to quiet the ‘chatter’ in your mind. Traditionally this method is used with items like candle flames, religious icons (paintings of significant religious figures) or objects from nature like a flower, stone, stream of running water etc. Sit in front of your focus object in a comfortable position where you can see the object easily. If you are using a candle it often helps if the room is only dimly lit so you can concentrate on the flame more easily. You can meditate by gazing at your object and trying to empty your thoughts. As thoughts arise (and they will) simply try to let them go and return to gazing at the object. Or you can use it as a focus for contemplation – as thoughts arise, gently direct them towards reflection on the spiritual significance of your object (i.e. the beauty and splendour of creation, the love of God etc).
NOTE: It does occasionally happen when people begin a new meditation practice that creating some interior ‘space’ allows repressed problems to rise to the surface so you become aware of them. If this happens to you then it’s important that you seek out help to deal with the issue.