One of the trickiest things about contemplative practice is the strict rhythm it demands. This is one of the first thing that turns someone off to the practice, even if they are enthused about the real benefits of emotional balance, acceptance, and inner growth. It takes a commitment.
The minimum in most traditions is at least 20 minutes a session at least once, but usually two sessions a day, often first thing in the morning and last thing before bed. But so often, with the way our lives are structured, even a strong commitment doesn’t make it happen.
Instead of a commitment to a precise practice or throwing in the towel, it’s helpful to think in terms of a commitment to the process, even if the individual sessions sometimes get skipped. It’s an overall orientation.
Recently, for example, my son developed a week long cough at the start of the school year. He woke me up in the middle of the night several nights in a row, and it usually takes me a while before falling back to sleep. Still, I did my best to maintain a solid rhythm that week. Up early for the practice, then to the gym, or getting up a little bit later for the practice on alternate days.
Then over the weekend, a stomach bug came on and woke me up at 12, 1, and 2 AM. After several nights of already poor sleep and ongoing sleep apnea, it felt like a bit of cruel and unusual punishment. Then as I regained strength, the demands of the week included working late into the night, taking care of nephews, dog sitting, fixing broken machines, late-night conference calls.
In our interconnected society influenced by a global economy we keep irregular hours, we travel, we get sick, our kids get sick, responsibilities and projects pile too high, our life rhythms get interrupted. We get tired, forgetful, priorities get jumbled.
In part that’s why it’s been so huge for me to make contemplative practice a consistent priority, even when it’s interrupted from time to time.
One practice that’s been helpful in weeks like this, when finding the time and space for regular practice is extra difficult is simply shifting into emotional neutral and finding inner silence through repeating the sacred word from Centering Prayer practice at times of spiking stressors throughout the day.
If, for example, I’m on the phone for work, and my wife calls, and a friend texts with a need, and a moment later another colleague calls with another time sensitive issue on poor sleep and recovering body. Following the anonymous author of the 14th century classic The Cloud of Unknowing, I simply use the word God on the exhale of a deep breath with eyes closed, focusing on the physical sensation of the breath out of a constricted throat and the release in the abdomen.
Different practitioners use different words. I used to say agape in a kind of slow staccato. Others use love, or mercy, or whatever. Teachers of Centering Prayer recommend that the sacred word not carry a strong emotional charge so that it triggers thoughts and emotions instead o allowing us to release them. In this context, it’s the function of the word that matters.
Now, the effectiveness of this technique relies in part on the inner sense memory of using this same practice regularly during the practice sessions when I notice myself getting tangled up in a thought, memory, or emotion. That habit of extrication, of inner dissolution can be brought to bear for a brief moment. It’s like contemplative practice in miniature. Returning to the moment, saying in essence “this is what is right now.”
In a healthy state, I’m not emotionally overwhelmed or victimized or looking for sympathy for layers of demand and being pulled in different directions, even in the midst of multiple stressors. There’s a simple recognition of demand. When we stay unconscious, it can get overwhelming very quickly. What we usually lack is broader perspective.
Using this simple technique of bringing the sacred word as it were outside the walls of the practice, can go a long way in restoring some sanity and perspective, allowing us to come back to the moment even on days we struggle to get to our practice.