Living While Aware

What if the spiritual life was merely life, a life lived in awareness? Thomas Merton once said, “Before you can have a spiritual life, you’ve got to have a life.” Being spiritual is not about disengaging from daily living. It is more about engaging fully.

In his book, On the Brink of Everything, Parker Palmer writes, “The spiritual journey is an endless process of engaging life as it is, stripping away our illusions about ourselves, our world, and the relationship of the two, moving closer to reality as we do.”

When we notice our world, people around us and our own being, we are practicing the spiritual life. The Spirit engages us in our moments of awareness. When we get too busy, too caught up in just moving from one activity to another, when we pass others by without a glance, we lose the ability to hear and see – to notice.

Thomas Merton’s story of his epiphany is an excellent example of living while aware.

“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.…

“Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time…. But this cannot be seen, only believed and ‘understood’ by a peculiar gift.” (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander)

Those of us who aspire to live spiritual lives push ourselves to do spiritual practices. In a society where activity is more valuable than being, we criticize ourselves for not spending more time with God—reading sacred texts, praying, meditating, and so on. I am not suggesting that these things are unimportant. On the contrary, research shows that these downtime activities are healthy. However, when we stress over them and berate ourselves for not doing them enough, we lose the benefits (spiritual and physical).

Perhaps the best practice is simply living while aware. We are always doing something, even if we are just sitting. We are breathing—how often do we take notice of our breathing and give thanks for the air that gives us life? When we are out in the world, do we notice—really notice— the people around us? Do we see them as Merton describes them, “walking around shining like the sun?” When we look in the mirror, do we see in ourselves the image of God?

Living while aware opens us up to the mystery and sacredness of everything.

Attitude of Gratitude

I have been keeping a gratitude journal for several years now. A firm believer in its benefits, I recommend it whenever I have the opportunity. Spending time each day thinking about things and people for which I am grateful, and actually writing them down, helps me remember how great my life is.

The practice is particularly helpful during hard times, and we’ve had a number of those lately. On these days, it is sometimes difficult to come up with five things to write down, but doing so shifts my focus from what is going wrong to what is going well. Again, I am reminded that even in hard times, I am fortunate.

I haven’t gotten bored with the practice of keeping a gratitude journal, but I do sometimes wonder if I’m going deep enough. This morning, I was grateful to come across an article by Master Coach Melody Wilding. In this article, Wilding gives twelves prompts to help boost a gratitude practice. They are excellent suggestions for engaging in deeper thinking about gratefulness.

For instance, number 11 asks what mistake or failure might you be grateful for. If you’re like me, you could write quite a few pages on this topic!

My first marriage ended in divorce. Going through the process of separation and divorce was difficult, My husband and I were believers in “until death do us part,” and we are both ministers. It was difficult for us to admit that we had failed at our marriage vows. Practicing gratitude helped me make peace with our decision, and become a happier person.

I have always believed that every experience in life has something to offer us if we are willing to learn from it. Even our worst lapse in judgement, or the most devastating crisis can provide something for which to be thankful.

What are you grateful for today?

*Photo taken at the Spirit in the Desert Retreat Center in Phoenix, AZ