I can trash social media with the best of them. Yes, technology disrupts our lives and sometimes fries our brains. The sight of seventh graders sitting shoulder to shoulder after school, thumbs flying, oblivious to one another’s presence, makes me shiver. I weary of the constant battle - with grandkids and with myself - to tame the monster.
But seriously, what would we do without our smartphones? And who knew technology could help us pray??!! In an ideal world we wouldn’t need outside help, but nobody I know lives in an ideal world. In the real world I can use all the help I can get.
I use two apps on a regular basis to help me stick with my morning prayer/meditation routine. My favorite is InsightTimer, which is free and pretty amazing. I use it primarily for the timer function, which saves me from peeking at my watch when I should be thinking deep thoughts. If you like you can also set it to sound a few times during your meditation to remind you this is serious business, just in case you've forgotten and started planning out your daily itinerary instead. (Unfortunately, on a really bad day i can get to the end of my 20 minutes and not even remember hearing the gong.) You can select from different sounds to begin and end your session and how long you’d like to spend.
The app has classes available for purchase, but there are so many free guided meditations available you could listen to a different one every day for the rest of your life. Granted, some of them would be terrible, but they’d be free. You can also form an online group and check out who in your town is meditating and what they’re listening to. (Some people would call that Too Much Information.)
Most guided meditations on the app are secular or lean toward Buddhism or Hinduism. Christian meditations are available but rather scarce, not because the owners discriminate against Christians but because there's a scarcity of Christian teachers. Which is pretty interesting, when you think about it.
My second favorite app is Pray-As-You-Go, put out six days a week by Jesuits in England. PAYG reflects on the Scripture reading of the day for ten to twelve minutes. It begins each session with a contemplative piece of music. A narrator then reads the Scripture passage for the day and another invites a reflection and application to your own life. The Scripture passage is reread during the remaining few moments and the session closes with a doxology: “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.”They've expanded their offerings to include other forms of prayer, several of which are familiar only to Catholics. They're worth exploring, but I usually stick with the Scripture reflection.
I tend not to use this one when I’m on track with my spiritual regimen, but lean on it gratefully when life is hectic or hard. The combination of music and narration sometimes gets a little busy for my taste if my mind is behaving, but when I'm wound up they're just what I need to wrestle my brain back to business.
My shallow side loves the English accents because they make me feel like I’m traveling in Narnia, the land of the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I also notice that my brain quiets more easily when I listen than when I read a reflection.
This is just a small sampling of available resources. The biggest challenge these days is sorting through all the options to find one that works for you. The great thing about apps is that if you find one you like, you can listen in the car, at lunch, in the morning seated with coffee and a candle, while watching soccer practice.
These two are available online at www.insighttimer.com or www.pray-as-you-go.org or wherever you access your apps. And no, I am not receiving any compensation for recommending these. They're really and truly helpful.
Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney warming up to sing Counting Your Blessings from White Christmas
“You should be grateful!”
We’ve all heard those words, most often when we weren’t in the mood to listen. We’ve scolded ourselves for not being grateful - also, most likely, when gratitude wasn’t coming easily.
Yet gratitude is one of the most powerful tools in our arsenal for building spiritual resilience. Gratitude actually holds the power to nudge us away from depression and anxiety and toward greater peace with our world.
So What Exactly Is Gratitude?
Gratitude is not the same as appreciation, although appreciation is a good first step. When we appreciate something or someone we stop to notice, to pay attention. We take the opportunity to register and savor the awesomeness of the moment. Appreciation is taking time to notice just how cool someone or something is.
Gratitude looks further to the source of the goodness. When I appreciate a plate of lasagna, I take a good look at it, I smell the delicious aroma, I pay attention to what’s on my fork and in my mouth without being overly distracted by what’s going on in the room. I appreciate the meal but I’m not considering how the meal got to my plate.
When I’m grateful I also acknowledge the cook’s skill and the time invested in preparing the meal. I can grow my circle of gratitude to include those who grew the ingredients and transported them to my grocery store. If I dig even deeper I can expand my scope to include the planet that sustains my life and ultimately to the One who created it all.
The online Oxford Dictionary goes one step further, defining gratitude as thankfulness and “a readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.” Pretty powerful plate of lasagna.
Simply telling ourselves or our kids to be grateful doesn’t often make much difference. On the other hand, consciously shifting our attention toward the blessings in our lives can. I used to ask my high school students to list fifty things they were grateful for. I knew if they wrote a short list they would probably get stuck in clichés, but as they stretched to fill those last twenty slots their lists became much more interesting.I will never forget one student’s entry. She’d been injured as an infant while in the care of a negligent babysitter, and her beautiful face bore a noticeable scar even after several surgeries. On her list, without any explanation, was, “My scar.” I was humbled by her wisdom.
A Gratitude Practice
A spiritual practice is a concrete action we engage in on a regular basis in order to bring ourselves back to what's real. There are lots of ways to establish a practice of gratitude. You could make your own list of 50 and review it frequently, but most of us will forget, lose the list, get bored and figure it all takes too much time.
An alternative is to choose a time or event that happens regularly in your day, such as a meal, getting up in the morning, commuting to work, etc. Pick one recurring event and commit to thanking God in that moment for at least five people or things in your life. If possible, take time to really be present to each item on your list. Try to focus long enough that the gratitude actually registers on a feeling level. Pick a "target frequency" - say five times a week, and then give it your best shot.
There's actually research out there saying a gratitude practice can make you happier. Check it out if you don't believe me. You don’t have to take their word for it either. Give it a try for two weeks and see what happens. Then write and let us know how it goes.
A long time ago, when Sigmund Freud first started talking about the inner workings of the human mind, the conversation was pretty grim. Attention focused on what was wrong with people: hysteria, neuroses, complexes, fixations. For decades psychologists and psychoanalysts worked earnestly to help clients rid themselves of these sometimes-crippling disorders. As psychology fought to be taken seriously, researchers carefully studied a wide range of human dysfunction, offering important new insights to the world.
Which was good, but in hindsight a little lopsided. Around twenty-five years ago a few rebels started noticing that very little was being said about the positive aspects of human nature. Research on qualities like altruism, love or joy was almost nonexistent, and positive emotions were rarely mentioned in the professional literature. In time the field of “positive psychology” was born, and new research heralded our capacity for resilience, compassion and healing.
About ten years ago I stumbled across an article written by Dr. George Vaillant, a researcher and professor of psychiatry at Harvard University. Dr. Vaillant pointed out the existence of what he called “spiritual emotions.” He noted that spiritual emotions like gratitude, compassion, joy, awe, trust, love and hope all direct us beyond our own survival toward something greater. He drew on the work of Barbara Frederickson, who points out that such emotions prompt us to cooperate with others to create new and better solutions. Fear, on the other hand, causes us to narrow our focus and grow rigid and reactive in our thinking.
The article caught my attention and I’ve returned to it many times. Vaillant offered me a new vantage point for responding to our troubled times. These days when I look at religious or political institutions I see structures in trouble. Those structures are essential to life together, especially when we live together in large groups. But when they get unbalanced they can be like an overloaded freight train rounding a curve too fast. We’re seeing a lot of high-speed teetering these days.
If dogma and institutions are the bones and muscles of religion, I would see spiritual emotions as the heart and circulatory system. To paraphrase St. Paul, we can’t live without bones or muscles, but we also can’t expect femurs or biceps to feed themselves. Spiritual emotions provide the energy and healing power we need to keep us going.
George Vaillant is now in his eighties and graciously carries the wisdom of age. Over the years his message has become ever more focused: the foundation of human thriving is love. He reminds us that happiness arrives more surely as a byproduct rather than an object of our actions. When we try to make ourselves happy we often just make ourselves tired. When we remember to be grateful, to forgive, to pay attention to the hearts of the quirky people around us, we are often, as C.S. Lewis said, “surprised by joy.”
Vaillant sums it up, “Happiness is the cart. Love is the horse.”
Click here for his TED talk.
Photo credit: Jaroom Photography, Flickr
It's no secret our congregations are greying. St. Mary's Press, longtime Catholic education publisher, is researching and responding to the absence of so many young people from our pews. Their most recent blog post features a conversation between me and senior editor and wise counselor Jerry Ruff. Find it here:
Or the Senate Committee Room or...
Like so many others, I’ve been hooked by the Supreme Court confirmation firestorm. The situation is tragic regardless of who or what you believe. Rather than debating who's right or wrong, I'd like to examine a spiritual practice that can help each of us respond.
We're fascinated by this drama because we find somebody’s behavior appalling, and really bad behavior is frightening. When groups of people become enraged a terrifying sinister energy seems to emerge. And when we feel personally endangered our own dark side - vengeful, slanted, self-protective - fights to cut loose and start swinging.
I’d just finished reading the latest wrinkle in the unfolding story when suddenly an image of Jesus walking into that room came to me. In my imaginary hearing room he wasn’t there to take the stand or to take someone’s side. He was simply being present.
The effect on me was remarkable. I immediately calmed down - not completely, but substantially. Gone was my feeling of the world rocking beneath my feet, and I could sense a peace and clarity surrounding Jesus. The scene didn’t shift my opinion about who was telling the truth. It did shift me toward compassion for everyone involved. Until that moment my compassion had been reserved for the persons I considered to be injured, while I focused my judgment, resentment and anger on the other guys. Those guys included a large portion of my fellow Americans.
Regardless of what did or didn’t happen at a party 30 years ago, tragic incidents of sexual misconduct happen every day. We clearly need new awareness and revised systems to help us reduce their incidence and impact. The spiritual practice of imagining Jesus in our midst is one small tool that can help us get there.
The picture in my head showed up without my asking, but we can consciously decide to create imaginary scenes. The visitor we imagine doesn't have to be Jesus. For me as a Christian, Jesus is a spiritual touchstone. For Buddhists it might be the Buddha, for Muslims Muhammad. We can visualize a major figure in our spiritual tradition, or someone we rub shoulders with every day. The key is to choose a person of compassion and wisdom and to use our imaginations to create a vivid picture in our minds.
Visualization As Spiritual Practice
A practice is something we do on a repeated basis, usually to accomplish some result. Brushing your teeth is a practice. So is regularly checking the air in your tires or rewarding your dog's good behavior with a treat A spiritual practice is something we do on a repeated basis to call us back to our core beliefs and help us live according to them.
Athletic coaches as well as pastors and spiritual advisors teach visualization. Research demonstrates that athletes who visualize success are more likely to achieve it. Vividly imagining a spiritually-inspired scene helps anchor us in our own spiritual base. When we visualize we draw on our sense memory of sight, hearing and sometimes smell to help change our thinking and our mood.
Visualizing Jesus is a spiritual practice that helps me shift gears and see things in a new light. When I picture Jesus in a contentious scene several things predictably happen:
At their best, spiritual practices engage our whole selves - our bodies and emotions as well as our minds. When we tap into our sense memory to create an image different from the ones our overheated brains are currently cooking up, we get wiser.
And more peaceful, and compassionate, and hopeful, and...
Photo Dirksen226, Wikimedia Commons
Common wisdom used to claim our intellects were supposed to conquer our emotions, and certainly we’ve all gotten into trouble by being carried away with anger or captivated by some temporary obsession. But emotions also inspire people to great things, and researchers have recently discovered emotions play a central role in our so-called “intellectual” capacity to figure things out and remember.
So emotions are a mixed bag, and we experience conflicting emotions all day long. How do we sort them out, especially on the spur of the moment? How do we know what we’re “supposed to” feel? I’ve been puzzling over this question for a long time, and finally came up with a way to think about emotions. I believe they fall roughly into the following four categories:
Positive spiritual emotions like gratitude, compassion, awe, joy trust, hope, love, inspiration
Painful spiritual emotions like grief and contrition
Survival emotions: anger, fear and desire
Counterproductive emotions: resentment, anxiety and depression
Each category has distinctive characteristics and invites a different response. We’ll focus on positive spiritual emotions for the moment.
So What Is A Positive Spiritual Emotion?
Spiritual emotions occur when we transcend our own small selves and connect intuitively and emotionally with our deepest selves, other people, and/or God. Think of someone you would consider spiritually great. This person may or may not belong to your faith tradition, if you have one. You probably don’t agree with everything they say or do. They may not possess all of the qualities in our first list above, but most likely they’re strong in at least a couple. They’re buoyed not just be their convictions but also by a mysterious inner state.
That inner state or spiritual emotions can prompt us to take action or result from an outside circumstance. Sometimes we take action based on a surge of gratitude or compassion; other times a sunset or a baby’s laugh brings on gratitude and we just hold it - or are distracted and pass it by.
We’ve all had the experience of white-knuckling through a tough decision, overriding our emotional response every step of the way in order to live faithful to our convictions. Those moments are admirable and important. They’re also really hard to sustain. How do we shift our insides to a place where our emotional default not only feels better but also helps us be the person we want to be?
We can’t manufacture spiritual emotions, but we can cultivate them. We can choose activities and situations where we catch them from other people. We can become more aware of habits that steer us toward unproductive emotions like anxiety, resentment or depression. We can develop - but never guarantee - our capacity to receive them by grace from God.
Because we need them. And the world needs us.
Photo credit: Josh Sullivan, Flikr