So when I began this blog, South of God, it was the beginning of the Advent season, a time to prepare for Christmas. Not by finding and buying just the right present for that special person, be it a grandchild or lover. Not by decking the halls with greenery. Not by planning a feast by consulting fave cookbooks and family recipes. Not by retrieving boxes from the attic or basement filled with treasured decorations from the past. All that may be part of your Advent past, and it generally brings good emotions of connection, perhaps even joy, as you “get ready for Christmas Day.”
However, I was thinking more about the spirit of Advent being a season of preparing one’s soul for an inbreaking of light into darkness, of looking to the horizon of our lives for growth, development. And for me, I have trained myself to use this season as tuning my heart for surprise. What might happen that is new, fresh, enlivening? I want to suggest that these days before Christmas might be a time for quiet in the middle of all the busyness of the season. My friend, Betty Barstow, wrestled me into thinking of it as counter-cultural, which, of course, appealed to my native spirit. Imagine that, silence in the face of busyness.
It occurred to me that in that sense, Advent is sort of a microcosm of my life throughout the year, trying to find an oasis of centeredness in the pressing fray of activity that impinges on my life. Is it possible to be centered in the midst of the whirlwind, not only in this particular time of year, but throughout my year.
For me, I was given the gift of centering one year by a Trappist monk who lives at a monastery about an hour east of Atlanta. Tom taught me a method of prayer that had been around for centuries but had been repackaged by some modern monks as they rebranded it as Centering Prayer. It used a simple two syllable word for a mantra by which one focuses one’s breathing: breathe in, breathe out, in a natural rhythm, in and out. Centering…. as natural as breathing.
Now, there’s a bit more to it than that, but in its essence, it is merely ceasing one’s busyness in order to center. In the Centering Prayer method, it is suggested that one does that for twenty minutes twice a day, naturally in the morning and evening. It’s been my discipline since college, or should I say, my practice, as I have had to work hard to find that center in certain seasons of my life, while at other times, it comes as easy as breathing.
For some time, I have been teaching this method to others who have desired to find such a center in the midst of their whirlwind. I have taught seminary students who were looking for a center in the vortex of relativity introduced by serious critical study. I have taught centering to people transitioning into their first parish job, inundated by endless demands on their time and insatiable needs of the people who they are trying to pastor. And in the parishes I served, I taught all sorts of folks who found themselves longing for a center, a calmness, a peace that orders the craziness of trying to make sense of the world, their world in particular. In my recent years, I have been training folks in healthcare, executives, physicians, nurses, and other members of that special team of folks who know the unrelenting push and pull of urgency. I have found that all people need and desire a centeredness that gives peace and connection, even in the blurring rapidity of change in their particular and peculiar whirlwind..
This whole centering thing has become rather popular. It has completely secular form that goes by the name of mindfulness, which sounds less exotic than meditation. It is a simple thing, this slowing down to be present to the moment. Some wags have called this popular wave McMindfulness, or drive-through meditation. That gives me a good belly laugh, and I like the fact that it takes some of the esoteric shimmer away from what I sense is a natural thing available all human beings. No magic here, no “woo woo” panache that draws the curious. Rather, mindfulness speaks to the deep need we all have for that Center than is beyond the passing activity of our life.
So where to begin, say you were interested in using this season for something new, something fresh, something promising. Let’s begin with motivation, and those promises those whispers of improved lives. There’s a bunch of research from science that you can source if you need convincing. I’ve been a part of a group that studies this phenomena using f-MRIs to see the actual biological changes in brain chemistry as a result of meditation. I am convinced of the pragmatic, good results for those who meditate through time. But I am more convinced by the actual cases of people I have worked with to change their lives to a healthier outcome. The benefits are focus, deeper sleep, less anxiety, better oxygen intake, and a happier mood, just to name a few.
I suggest you start slow to see if centering might be of use to you. I recommend a series of five minute pauses in the day, whenever you can make it happen or take advantage of a break. I normally encourage folks to schedule a time that can become a regular practice. Those in healthcare have chosen to “grab five” at the start of the day. Some “take five”, Brubeck style, at lunch. Others find the end of the day works, while others make a simple five pause whenever they can. Whatever works for you. Just do it, to coin a phrase.
Here’s the simple routine: 1. Sit comfortably. Rest your hands on your lap, or desk. Close your eyes to avoid distraction(no woo woo magic here) or keep a light gaze to the space immediately to your front. 2. Begin by taking a minute or so of deep breaths, as they occur naturally, unforced. 3. Do a check of your sense of relaxation, beginning with your face, then, on down your body, with an inventory of how you are feeling. 4. Maintain your focus by sensing and being aware of your breath for the next three to five minutes. 5. End your centering with an offering of thanks, for something specific, or for the gift of the time of being centered. That’s it. You are on the road to an improved centeredness.
Be assured that when you begin, unless you are a meditation Mozart, you will find thoughts entering into the silence, intrusions as to what you should be doing, pricks of reminders of things that would claim your attention. Simply let them go and return to the breath. This is what Buddhists call “the monkey mind”, with the monkeys jumping from tree to tree, with one intent: distraction. Simply return to the breath. I promise, over time and practice, the monkeys calm down and the center will hold.
So, there it is. Something perhaps new for you to try on for size during the next month. If you have questions, feel free to send a question my way. Five minute of peace, not distracted, centered. Blessings.+