A few weekends ago I gave myself the gift of presence. It was simple really. I created an at-home retreat, something many of us can do. Was it easy? Not for me. You see, despite being a deeply contemplative person, I am also a doer. I like to do things. I carry many voices inside me that remind of what I could be doing, or worse yet, what I should be doing. One of my lifelong lessons it seems is to acknowledge these pesky voices and then turn my attention elsewhere; to listen instead to the voice of my soul. The voice that says, “Nourish yourself. Rest.”
Mid-winter in Michigan is the one of the best times to go inward. There is a profound stillness that covers the landscape. Even the Great Mother Inner Ocean (Lake Michigan) still sings her comforting lullaby despite the cold. I used to think that I hated winter; I dreaded it in fact. But something happened a few years ago and my soul turned toward it. It heard a beckon call to return to the comfort of quiet--inner and outer stillness—to give myself permission to rest in it. Winter has become for me a season of spiritual self-care. And one of the ways I engage this care is by creating an at-home retreat.
Key to ensuring silence and rest for me is disconnecting from all devices. In my day-to-day life, I am too often drawn to regularly checking my phone or email, or following the next best rabbit hole of interest on the internet. On retreat, I must put my computer in a different room so I don’t see it, the same with my phone. An email autoresponder is turned on. I know my own mind and poor habits and one of the best gifts I can give myself is freedom from distraction. I often marvel at how patient the Universe must be with me to tolerate my tendency toward distraction.
Retreats, especially at-home retreats, need to be prepared ahead of time. We must inform any others with whom we share space that we are taking “time-in” and cannot be disturbed. Food and drink will need to be prepared and handy; creating a comfortable retreat space for yourself that’s ideal for rest and reflection. A chair for reading and writing unless you prefer to do it hunkered down under the covers as I do. There is nothing better than greeting the morning with prayers of “Thank You,” stealing to the kitchen to make a cup of tea, then crawling back into a warm bed with a book and my journal.
Only then, once all this orchestration has taken place, does the retreat actually begin. I don’t know about you but it always takes a little while for me to settle down inside myself, to “gentle down” as I call it, and slide into neutral. To be more receptive to the movement of the Spirit, for this is primarily what retreat time is for me: a time to let go of my own agenda, to listen, to receive, and to follow the sacred threads of what is being revealed to my deepest me—my soul.
I’ve always needed a book or two on retreat to open the door of any deeper knowing. It could be one simple phrase that reveals an entire universe of discovery. And perhaps not so much discovery as remembering—who I am in my essence, who or what the Divine is to me, and how it is working in my life, calling me deeper yet. The depths, I have come to know, are cavernous, immeasurable, spanning into Forever. But I accept the invitation and enter.
This time while on retreat the book I journeyed with was Birthing the Holy: Wisdom from Mary to Nurture Creativity and Renewal by Christine Valters Paintner. I chose it carefully, or should I say, its spirit chose me. I believe that focusing on one tract or tome, minimizing the voices in texts to a few, is key to greater attention and deepening. The “success” of one’s retreat may depend on what you have been guided to spend your time with and how. An entire suitcase of books is not necessary, and yet while on retreat elsewhere, I have witnessed attendees doing this very thing. Bringing stacks of books for fear they will miss something!
I believe the Divine doesn’t work this way, but instead meets us right where we are as we are—with little or nothing at our disposal—and perhaps this scarcity of texts and tools is best. After all, we are being invited to simply BE during this time of turning inward. The primary invitation of retreat is simply listening, being, breathing, attending to our inner movements, and trusting that we are being guided into the Great Depths that can nourish and restore us.
During my at-home retreat, I found a rhythm to my days. I read, journaled, rested, walked. I sat in silence and looked out the window—watched the snowflakes fall. I listened to gentle music and drank a lot of tea. I found myself praying more than usual which was quite lovely. Mostly, I tried to receive because I do trust the movement of the Spirit and know in my heart the gifts can be great and bounteous if we leave our personal agendas at the retreat door and humbly enter in.
I was not disappointed. In fact, this retreat felt monumental to me as if a great internal turning had taken place. I let go, I trusted, I followed Sacred breadcrumbs and was nourished by them. As the months or years go by, I will undoubtedly write more about my experience, but not now because the gifts are still being revealed, and sometimes it is best to hold these tender bestowals close to your heart. They are still warm, still fragrant, and continue to take me deeper.
I wish the same for you. May deep rest and inner nourishment be yours. May Presence reveal itself in unexpected and healing ways. May you know that you are loved.
Perhaps, like me, you do things in seasons. I'm not an avid journaler, for example, but I do engage in it when the time is right—in a certain season of life when some aspect of my life or inner being needs attention. Or while on retreat.
A spiritual practice can be like that. We may not have the self-discipline to do it everyday, but if we listen deeply to the voice of intuition, or to those subtle urgings of Spirit, we find ourselves magnetically drawn back to it. The deeper, truer part of us (soul? essence? God-self?) knows what we need to connect with That which will enable us to connect to the truth of our being.
This winter, as the snow falls and frigid temps keep me inside, I have taken to a classic spiritual practice in the early hours of the morning: devotional reading and "journaling lite." I've returned to an old classic, translated by one of our worldly wisdom guides. I read just a small section each day and sit with it, ponder it, let it roll through my heart-mind like gossamer rays of sunlight, illuminating that which needs to be seen. Then, I choose just a few words or lines to capture the wisdom of the moment and record it in the narrow spaces of a day planner. That's it.
Taking in just enough to satisfy, small bites, to savor and enjoy. For me, this is an act of Presence. Discarding the notion (and tendency) to gobble up information (even divine wisdom) and quickly swallow to call it "good." Or engaging in a spiritual practice half-heartedly so we can check it off our To-Do List. Presence, in this way, is cultivated by going slowly and taking our time; creating space for ourselves to sit and take pleasure in the process.
Presence involves a generosity to self that is not selfish by any means, but an invitation to being with ourself in simple, kindly ways that nourish wholeness.
It's not too late to begin again, to launch (or relaunch!) a gentle morning practice of Presence through gentle spiritual engagement, welcoming that which wants to make itself known to you.
Every day offers a new beginning. With the dawn, comes the opportunity to begin again. Just as the sun rises each day, creating a unique and breathtaking panorama, so can you paint a fresh and brilliant day for yourself.
A Guided Meditation
A Peaceful Pause for New Beginnings (3 min.)
I've been pondering this post for a while now. Actually, I have been in discernment for months about how to best focus my energies and heart in terms of my work in the world, my heath and well-being, my relationships and, most importantly, my relationship with the Divine. I was surprised to see that my last post here was in April!
The pandemic caused many of us to redirect our life's focus. For me, the pandemic offered a unique opportunity to get "off the road." Staying home for this extended period of time revealed some very interesting (and timely!) things. In my case, the "quieting" (as my friend Sr. Ann calls it) was just what my soul needed to get clear about my habits, as well as my heart's desires.
I don't use the word "soul" lightly here. Its use is purposeful. Being home and staying home was an act of genuine soul care for me. You see, I have been teaching and traveling—public speaking, leading programs and retreats--traveling, traveling, since 1985 when two of my three children were very young (and one was not even born yet). It feels as if I have been "on the road" forever. The pandemic helped me create space for the awareness that I am weary of traveling and have been deeply nourished by being home, and leading a more contemplative life.
I've also been a care-taking partner for two of my dear ones for the last 18 years. Yes, I am one of the "Sandwich Generation," helping to provide compassionate care and support for a parent and a child at the same time. Had this been wearying me? The pandemic affirmed my inner "yes."
But it wasn't until I gave myself the gift of genuine presence in the form of a 5-day silent retreat in June that the call to engage even more deeply with silence and solitude in my everyday life became crystal clear. This gentle week of resting in my inner being with the Sacred—walking, listening to bird song, watching the clouds move across the sky, the waves dance along the shore—all offered deep restoration. And it brought much-needed clarity.
Sunset and a moonrise along the shores of Little Traverse Bay
I spoke with my spiritual director at the retreat about this. She affirmed what my soul was saying. I have a monastic heart. I am deeply nourished by solitude and silence. I am healthier and I also serve others better when I am truly invested in my contemplative life. I require large doses of nature for grounding and restoration. She also validated the truth of what Ram Dass had told me a few years ago: "Jan, you need to be more "in" than "out."
Since the retreat, I have continued to listen deeply and to honor what I am hearing. I have continued to make discernments about how to honor my "inner monk" (as author Beverly Lanzetta speaks of it) and, at the same time, how to continue to do the work in the world that I am called to do. This fall, I will begin sharing more about this journey with you through new offerings about stillness, silence, and the contemplative life.
I will be "at home" doing this and not on the road. For now, I sense my road warrior days might be over. I turn 68-years-old this week. I'm attending my 50th high school reunion soon. Life feels fleeting and time passes so quickly. I see the end of the trail as never before. And like many others today, I want more than ever to live each day of my life with meaning and purpose; honoring true self; honoring how the Divine lives and breathes through me; engaging my desire to be of service in this world; living with Peace, with Joy. In Love with All of it.
May it be so for me. May it be so for you if this is your heart's desire too. I am glad we are journeying together.
Shalom, Peace, Om Shanti,
Another post based on "these times" in which we are living. With ongoing tension around political views and concern about the state of the world, our ability to hold presence and listen well to others may be seriously stretched, even non-existent. Today, I present a few thoughts about this with a tiny practice that can help.
Sometimes it's difficult to listen. As we engage with someone, intending to receive and honor their sharing, our listening may falter. We may grow weary or impatient; our attention may wander, or we outright lose interest. Depending on the situation, there are a number of ways to respond to this dilemma. Today, let's explore two of the solutions together.
1. Take an energizing breath to heighten your senses: a deep inhale (to the count of 8) and a shorter exhale (to the count of 6.) This can enliven you. It can help you re-focus.
2. Practice prayerful listening. Ask for assistance for what you need to be more present in the moment; to listen more purely, unconditionally. Sometimes, when I am sitting with someone, listening to them in a deeper way, I need help. Instead of continuing to struggle with being attentive, I turn my heart toward the Sacred and open it to receive assistance with this matter.
Sometimes it's a very simple bequest, "Open me." Or, "Help me to listen." Or, "Help me not want to talk so much!" Prayer is our reaching down and in, or out and beyond ourselves for courage and guidance when we need it the most. Let us make good use of this in our listening as well. Ask for what you need and trust it will be given.
Adapted from Pure Presence: A Workbook and Journal
©2017, Janice L. Lundy
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Dr. Janice Lynne Lundy (PsyD, DMin, MPC)
is The Gerald May Professor of Spiritual Direction & Counseling at the Graduate Theological Foundation. She is an interspiritual director/mentor, educator and counselor who has been pointing people back toward the Sacred for nearly thirty years.