The Transforming Power of Spiritual Practices

I have meditated for several years, sometimes more consistently than at others. I’ve done it long enough to know that it helps open and free my mind to think differently. But I wanted to solidify the practice and make it a regular part of my everyday life. I also longed for rituals and life rhythms that would help me stay focused on living out the life values I professed. So I signed up for a class at Columbia’s Center for Lifelong Learning entitled Call to the Center. The Covid-19 pandemic that had started in the spring of 2020 seemed the perfect time to focus on daily practice. But by the time class ended and it was time to write the essay, we were moving into the holiday season. The rhythms begun during the course turned my reading/reflection and meditation practice into a routine.

As I thought about the work I have done toward integrating what I believe about God and myself in relationship to God, it started to become more apparent to me that spiritual practices are the mechanisms I use to create a container for holding these beliefs as I move through everyday life. This view helped me see that spiritual practices are essential to my journey living into the freedom of God’s love. A few of my old beliefs about transformation were not valid.

2 Corinthians 5:17 (NRSV) was a favorite quote in many sermons I heard growing up. It says, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” The preacher’s implication was a one-time salvation event that would get rid of all my human imperfections. Well, I lived in Central Florida during my teenage years, and when Disney World opened, we went there often. I had seen a sign that read, “the doors will open automagically when it’s time to enter the theatre.” It would be fantastic if we could learn a new framing story about God for our lives, envision a new identity based on love, and automagically erase all the old learning, harmful habitual response mechanisms, and the pain from the old beliefs. However, we still live with the realities of being human alongside our new understanding of having God’s kingdom residing within us.

As I read Cynthia Bourgeault’s book, Centering Pray and Inner Awakening, I uncovered another old belief that needed to be unlearned. Just because the Divine lives in me and through me does not negate the reality of my humanness. God’s creation was good, and being human is not a disease that needs to be cured [1]. The unique human essence is useful and is the “raw material” for creatively living out who I was created to be [2]. Honoring and accepting myself is part of the journey towards being fully alive, living in companionship with God and other people.

The idea that personal transformation is a process resonates with my experience. When I studied practical theology, the study of aligning theological understanding and lived experience, I learned it was based on the praxis of action and reflection. Organizational change management theory includes implementing and reporting or reviewing for evolving and adapting business processes.

Richard Rohr believes in the inseparability of contemplation and action in the process of transformation so much that the non-profit he founded is named Center for Action and Contemplation [3]. Contemplation or “looking thoughtfully at something for a long time” provides the input we need to embody what we believe. After we act, returning to contemplation helps us notice the result, and the cycle begins again.  I’ve found that spiritual practices are necessary to increase my capacity to engage in contemplation, take action, and be transformed over time.

Awareness Meditation and Centering Prayer

I had never seen a difference between awareness meditation [4] which I learned from the Buddhist tradition, paying attention to my breath, and centering prayer. The use of a word to refocus the wandering mind seemed the same as returning to the breath. Bourgeault talks about three types of meditation, each with a specific purpose for the practice. She describes my practice of attending to my breath as providing clarity of mind [5]. It has been instrumental in providing insight into my false self’s actions and making connections to alternate ways of being. It has slowed my thinking mind, reactive behaviors and allows me to notice what is happening internally. I am becoming more present to God’s work in the world.

The practice of centering prayer has an additional function that I had previously not considered. Based on the understanding that God, the kingdom of God, is within me, my attention during meditation moves from my head and thoughts to my heart or soul space where God and I reside together. Within God’s loving presence, I can release all the unhelpful judging, defending, and afraid parts of myself. In the moments when I return my wandering mind to my heart, I am free and fully loved [6]. I can experience these moments whether I am using my breath or a word because it is an internal movement of allowing myself to be without trying to accomplish anything.

I’ve become fascinated with noticing how this practice of visualizing the movement from head to heart and resting in that true self communing with God is unfolding a new sense of awareness. I’ve been more aware of the moments between stimulus and response as I go about my day. The inner observer [7], which I think of as God and my true self, can be heard more often in those moments.  I’ve also observed more clearly some of the false or small ego parts of myself asserting themselves and remember that emotion only lasts about a minute and a half [8]. I can sit with, really feel it for that long before taking any action. Sometimes a little breathing is needed to calm my nervous system, but it works a bit better every time I practice this.

Welcoming Prayer

Whether you use the Christian terminology of surrender [9] or the Buddhist description of letting go of attachments [10], the process of letting go of thoughts during meditation prepares me for another spiritual practice. My spiritual director has long encouraged me to practice welcoming prayer. Maybe I just wasn’t spiritually ready, or perhaps I just needed a slightly different way to practice it. This practice is an active letting go of the underlying defensive or protective emotion to see more clearly what your next right action should be.

In Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, I found Mary Mrozowski’s four-line litany very helpful for this “letting go” process. The last two lines are most often the hardest for me [11].

“I let go my desire for security and survival.
I let go my desire for esteem and affection.
I let go my desire for power and control.
I let go my desire to change the situation.”

However, when I can practice acknowledging the small ego parts of myself and move back into the heart space where I am aware of God and my creative, loving self within, I can more often break a cycle of behaviors and habits. Bourgeault warns that this is not about fixing yourself or getting rid of parts of yourself that you don’t like [12]. This practice frees us to allow our true self to emerge, and we can be who God has created us to be [13].

Loving Kindness Meditation

For those of us who are just beginning to internalize a new framing story about God, ourselves, and our relationships, seeing and feeling emotions and old habits and their harm to ourselves and others can be overwhelming at times. I know this is very true for me. My reactions vary from beating up on myself to a kind-hearted acknowledgment of the pattern accompanied by a desire to do things differently. I find myself turning to another type of meditation I learned a few years ago to help me turn towards myself with love as I continue my inner work.

I took a compassion meditation course at the Drepung Loseling Monastery in Brookhaven through Emory [14]. I found it builds upon the awareness meditation I practice to internalize the Buddhist understanding that everyone has an inborn desire to be happy and free of suffering. This desire can lead us into those false self or small ego actions that we try to use to shield ourselves from anything that we think prevents happiness or causes suffering. By offering ourselves or extending compassion to others, we can stay with our own humanness and establish a connection to others’ humanity.

Compassion or loving-kindness meditation offers love and compassion for the internal struggle I must allow as I welcome and truly experience my feelings as they arise. The practice provides a process that helps me turn lovingly towards all the parts of myself when my body wants to run or overthink. It also helps me connect with the pain and suffering that is going on in the people around me. Through this lens, I can refocus within the life-giving framework of the kingdom of God in each person. This work of generating compassion and empathy is ongoing and is foundational for continuing my inner work.

Where Do I Go From Here?

 Spiritual practice was not a term I grew up knowing. I got the impression that, for most people, reading the entire Bible every year and kneeling for daily praying was what was required to be a good Christian. My mother was one of the few people I knew who quietly and consistently practiced these things out of devotion instead of obligation. I no longer see the practices I choose to work with as just another item on my to-do list. They are rituals, each with its purpose and intention. I am practicing these things with attention to that purpose and include them in my daily planning [15]. I’ve come to understand that the need for spiritual practices is fluid, and the choice of what I choose to do varies with the circumstances and needs of my life. But, I now understand the need for ongoing and regular methods of actively keeping my mind, body, and spirit engaged with loving God, self, and neighbor.

This understanding has led to incorporating other rituals and practices into my life. I’ve embraced yoga as a means of learning to identify my body’s needs and how the body interacts with my thoughts and emotions. Casper Kuile, in his book, The Power of Ritual, shared a quote from Aldous Huxley that reads, “It is with their muscles that humans most easily obtain knowledge of the divine [16].” I’m beginning to experience this. Writing free-form pages about my life every morning and regularly reviewing them has become a practice with results similar to the examen. It helps me name my needs and feelings and see connections. I’ve seen the effect of telling the truth in my writing as to God and asking for direction and further insight [17]. From Lectio Divina experiences, I have created a writing practice about what I’m reading and exploring new concepts that help integrate what I’ve learned [18]. I use Instagram as a means of recording where I am encountering God in daily life.

Some of these have become habits foundational to maintaining a life lived according to my expressed values. Others come and go as needed or as experiments. Kuile shares that the word spiritual means a pointer to something beyond language. I realized I would like to add visual elements to increase attention during these practices to their spiritual purpose [19]. I want to experiment with lighting candles, preparing the space with a smell, or playing music consistently to “consecrate or dedicate” the time [20].

It’s all part of the freedom and creativity of the journey.

“So don’t you see that we don’t owe this old do-it-yourself life one red cent. There’s nothing in it for us, nothing at all. The best thing to do is give it a decent burial and get on with your new life. God’s Spirit beckons. There are things to do and places to go.”

Matthew 8:12-14, The Message

[1] Cynthia Bourgeault, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, Kindle (Lanham, MD: Cowley Publications, 2004), 105.
[2] Bourgeault, 106.
[3] “Who We Are,” Center for Action and Contemplation, accessed February 27, 2021, https://cac.org/about/who-we-are/.
[4] Bourgeault, 20.
[5] Bourgeault, 119.
[6] Bourgeault, 117.
[7] Bourgeault, 129.
[8] Pema Chodron, Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change, Kindle (Boston & London: Shambala, 2012), 12.
[9] Beaugalt, 162.
[10] Chodron, 9.
[11] Bourgeault, 147.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Bourgeault, 149
[14] “Overview | Emory University | Atlanta GA,” accessed March 6, 2021, http://compassion.emory.edu/cbct-compassion-training/index.html.
[15] Casper Kuile, The Power of Ritual: Turning Everyday Activities into Soulful Practices, Kindle (New York: Harper One, 2020), 25.
[16] Kuile, 109.
{17] Kuile, 154.
[18] Kuile, 35.
[19] Kuile, 28.
[20] Kuile, 40.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s