On the blog over the past three editions, we have been considering our need to cultivate awareness in our lives. Why is awareness foundational to our spiritual lives, and what are some of the challenges we encounter when we try to become more aware of ourselves, of God and of others? I have suggested some practices that Christians have found helpful in cultivating a more wakeful way of being in their lives, and offered in particular some ideas about how our five senses invite us to be more attentive. I hope that as we have explored this theme, you have experimented with some of the practices and begun to experience a growing awareness in your own life.
Mary Oliver, the Pulitzer prize-winning poet who passed away in the middle of this month, wrote often about paying attention. In her book, A Poetry Handbook (1994), she wrote, “Attention without feeling is only a report.” In this article, we will consider the feelings that might emerge as we learn to pay greater attention.
Becoming Aware of Pleasant Emotions
When we truly tune in to what is going on in the deeper places within ourselves, we are going to get in touch with some emotion. And yes, sometimes these will be positive emotions: perhaps we feel a sense of gratitude; we might feel profoundly comforted; or a more far-reaching experience of well-being than we had been aware of in our day-to-day lives. It is truly wonderful to create a pause in the swift passing of time, and to take stock of all that is good and meaningful in our lives and to feel that goodness deeply within ourselves. Jesus declared that He came to humankind to give us ‘life in all its fullness’ (John 10:10) and it is a beautiful thing when we are aware of experiencing something of that fullness in our present lives.
Becoming Aware of Uncomfortable Feelings
Of course, when we pay attention we may also become aware of less pleasant emotions. This can be much more difficult for us. Indeed, most of us spend a fair amount of energy trying to avoid feeling sadness, pain, disappointment or loneliness. As we have mentioned in previous articles, consciously or subconsciously we try our hardest to shove those unpleasant emotions into a place where we don’t have to feel them, or where they feel more manageable. Sure, they are still there somewhere, but we avoid facing them head on. We’d rather that than risk stepping into the questions, doubts or unresolved tensions that those feelings bring up for us.
So when we get quiet with ourselves and with God, when we remove ourselves from the distractions with which we are normally surrounded, when we listen more carefully to our bodies and souls, well, then it’s possible that we become aware of some difficult emotions we have been holding at bay.
When we are still, we get in touch with our deeper desires about how we’d like to be living our lives, and we might become aware that our lives do not really correspond with what we truly want. Life might feel out of control, or we may fear that however hard we try we are not able to get our life to line up with our deeper values or sense of purpose. This is really hard for any of us to face.
Stay with the Feelings
What do we do when we have set aside time to pay attention to the deeper things of life and then we feel a sense of sadness? If you are anything like me, the temptation is to take a quick peek at what is lying there and quickly move to something more palatable! We can even distract ourselves with ‘good’ things, like Bible study or playing worship music, while on the inside resisting this invitation to take an honest look at what is most deeply true about us in that moment. Honest awareness, as Mary Oliver reminds us, is not just being able to report some facts about what transpired in our time of paying attention, but it is actually feeling what reveals itself as true in that place. Ultimately, Simone Weil tells us, “awareness holds much more transformative power than will.” So, however much it makes us squirm, staying present to those uncomfortable feelings is important!
It is likely that we will need to release some of the emotion that rises up, then. Our times of retreat or quiet may bring us to tears, or perhaps we feel angry in some way we don’t quite understand. It is important that we don’t move too quickly from the feeling – however much we’d like to – but stay with it long enough to name what it is. While we might not understand it yet – why do I feel this sadness, or this rage? – let’s be willing to put a name to whatever feeling is there.
Why is this important? Because this uncomfortable place can become a true meeting place with God. God wants to encounter us in these places of truth and lead us – not around that reality but through it.
“An embrace of the present moment can do something that nothing else can do; it can bring us into the only place where we truly are, the only place we can truly be alive, the only place where we can truly meet God.”
– David G. Benner
Uncovering what is Beneath our Feelings
These are some reflective questions that may help us when holding before God these areas of pain, loss, or unresolved tension.
- Where do I feel empty, or am I aware of anything that feels missing?
- What rhythms of life do I find myself longing for?
- What changes am I experiencing in my life? What adjustments do these changes require?
- In what ways do I feel limited? Perhaps in my body, or my family life, or my work?
- To what is God inviting me and how do I want to respond?
As our final question indicates, after processing these reflections with God, we might become aware of some kind of invitation. Perhaps Jesus is making himself available to us as our Healer, or Redeemer, or Reconciler, or Sin-bearer. Perhaps we sense we are to be more intentional in a particular area, or to recalibrate our lives in some way. We might want to take some time to consider our response to this invitation, and to write it down or share it with someone.
My hope is that through this four-part series on awareness, we have seen that the invitation to pay attention is more than a reflection of a cultural trend. As followers of Jesus, we are not invited to practice ‘mindfulness’ just so that we can be culturally appropriate in some way. No, we are invited to a level of alertness in our lives, so that we can engage more truly and more whole-heartedly with the Spirit of God as he does his work in us – his son or daughter – and in us, his people, his Church. May God bless each of us as we continue to respond to the lifelong invitation to turn our attention more fully towards him and his activity in our lives!
Read more on this topic:
Ruth Haley Barton (2018) Invitation to Retreat: The Gift and Necessity of Time Away with God
Thomas Green (1979) When the Well Runs Dry: Prayer Beyond the Beginnings