The Christian faith, as I see it, is two parallel journeys. One is a journey inward to the peace of God’s presence within us. The other is a journey outward, making God’s peace and justice present in the world. This Lent, we’re going to spend some time on the inward journey. To do this, we’re going to try out some spiritual practices.
I have never gotten much out of spiritual practices even though I have been told to do them all my life. As a kid, I was told to have “quiet time,” praying and reading the Bible. Since coming to this church and going to seminary, the repertoire has expanded dramatically, but the result is the same: I do it for a little while, don’t find much happening, and I give up. Part of this is just lack of discipline on my part, but I also find it hard to engage something if I don’t have a good why or how underneath.
I don’t know if it is just the zeitgeist of the bubble I live in, but I’m suddenly hearing a lot about spiritual practices. It’s not just new things to try, but a coherent understanding of why and a framework for what they are supposed to do.
First, a definition: “A spiritual practice is any act habitually entered into with your whole heart that awakens, deepens, and sustains within you a contemplative experience of the inherent holiness of the present moment.” I got this from Joe Stabile, first on Suzanne Stabile’s podcast, The Enneagram Journey, and then in her 2019 Enneagram Cohort, of which I am lucky to be a part. My understanding is that Joe got this definition from James Finley, who is one of the teachers at Richard Rohr’s Center for Action and Contemplation.
I love the openness of this definition. Anything can be a spiritual practice. It could be more traditional Christian practices like prayer or the daily examen or walking a labyrinth. But it could also be gardening, hiking, watching a movie, or spending time with people you care about. And this anythingness means that you probably already have spiritual practices that you haven’t designated as such. I remember reading John Gottman this summer and he was talking about one of the keys to building good relationships is developing rituals together. It might be the practice of a faith or it could be a regular date night or brunch with friends. The key is that it opens you to the sacredness of the present; it grounds you.
Second, the why. I remember doing my quiet time as an adolescent, probably riding the spiritual high right after summer camp. I had been reading my Bible for many years and I was pretty sure I knew what all the stories meant. (I was wrong, but I didn’t know that at the time.) It became rote. I read the story, recited the well-worn meaning to myself, and I moved on. The moment did not seem holy at all. I think I expected something to happen. Even now, when I start to do centering prayer each morning, I expect something to happen. I want to get better at it. I want transformation. I want each sitting to be a little glimpse of enlightenment. When that doesn’t happen, I give up.
But that’s not how it works. Spiritual practices are not necessarily where the transformation happens. They are the preparation for transformation. Take centering prayer, which we tried on Sunday. You accept that there are distractions and you make peace with them. With time and practice, they are no longer as distracting. And then all the distractions that assail us in life are no longer as distracting. Then we are able to receive the moments of transformation when they are presented to us. We can be present to them. We notice them more. Every moment has the potential to be sacred. It’s okay if a sit doesn’t go well, if it’s not a mind-blowing mystical experience, because it’s not supposed to be.
Third, the how. I’ve been working with the Enneagram for more than a decade, but I learn something new all the time. The last year or so I’ve learned things that are not only new, but change the way I think about it completely. This is driving the way I’m teaching it in Sunday School and the way I’m engaging spiritual practices, both in church and in my own life. Rather than focusing on the number, the type descriptions, I’m beginning with the three centers of intelligence.
There are three centers of intelligence, three ways of knowing: the Body, the Heart, and the Head. For each of us, one of these is overdeveloped and one is underdeveloped. This doesn’t mean that those with an overdeveloped Head center are smarter and those with an overdeveloped Heart center are more empathetic. Rather, it is the center around which our personality is developed. That’s not a good thing.
The personality is also known as the false self or ego. Ian Cron calls it “the cover story.” The personality develops as a coping mechanism for life’s challenges. It is necessary, but over time we begin to identify with the personality so much that we forget who we are. Everyone is running around with a mask, even you. We pretend to be competent when we’re not, happy when we’re not, strong when we’re not, relational when we’re not. Each of us projects an image, both to the world and to ourselves, of who we are, but it’s not real. So what is real?
I have struggled with this a lot because I’m a non-essentialist. I’ve written about that before, but, briefly, I don’t think there is any essence or substance at the center of a thing that makes it a thing. I don’t have a soul; I am a soul. Enneagram wisdom teaches that there is a true self, a soul, that is divine and we can get there if we can get behind the false self. Even though I find a great deal of truth in the Enneagram, I don’t believe in a soul as a separate entity. Once again, Joe Stabile comes to my rescue. During the cohort, he spoke of the essence as the self that knows it is beloved.
Let’s go back to the intelligence centers. Each one is seeking something. The Body seeks freedom. The Heart seeks love and connection. The Head seeks support and guidance, confidence in decision-making. Who do we become if we really believe we are loved, supported, and free? That’s essence. That’s the true self. Not the self that needs to perform or achieve or control or serve or disappear or belong or be right. All of those are corruptions of the essential needs; we settle for them because we don’t believe the other is possible.
The best way to break down that false self is to undermine the dominant center. It has a grip on us and we undermine it by shoring up the other centers, starting with the one that is repressed. We are out of balance. We follow the dictates of the personality, the dominant center, most of the time. When we break that pattern and use the repressed center, our eyes are opened. We wake up. We can see that there are other ways to see the world than the one we always see with. And that loosens the grip of the false self.
You might be wondering how you know what is dominant and what is repressed. Well, that is the beginning of what spiritual practices do. We did centering prayer on Sunday and some people hated it. Five minutes seemed like forever. They wanted to do something, not just sit still. And some people loved it; they could sit still for hours. That is the beginning of discovery. Why can’t you sit still? What happens when you do? Is it because stillness in the Body gives the Head or Heart a chance to rise to the front of your consciousness? Are there things you don’t want to notice from those centers? Do they know things that your Body allows you to ignore? Is your Body tucking those things away in your shoulders or your back or your stomach?
I’m not trying to pick on the Body. Each week, we’re going to do spiritual practices that engage one of the centers. This Sunday, we’re going to engage the Heart. It will be uncomfortable for some and delightful for others. Either way, it will tell us something if we listen.
Homework: Trying doing something each day that engages the Body: take a walk; sit still; get a massage; do yoga; go for a hike. Take note of how you feel and what you think. Pay attention to any tightness or soreness, pain or numbness. What does your Body know that your Heart and Head don’t?