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USA Today – January 14, 2008
Two weeks into the New Year, life in the USA is largely back to normal. That means time is scarce, stress is high and an ordinary day — filled with chatter and other noise — permits barely a moment for the mind to rest in silence.
Maybe that’s why a growing number of Americans are recognizing a need to develop their inner life — if not as a spiritual practice, as a way to cultivate balance and depth in an increasingly hectic, chaotic, 24/7 world.
But many don’t know where to begin, especially if they don’t consider themselves “religious.” Even if they are religious, many haven’t found everything they’re seeking in weekly services.
A survey released last week of 1,400 U.S. adults who haven’t attended religious services in six months found that 72% nevertheless believe that “God, a higher or supreme being, actually exists.” The survey, by LifeWay Research, also found that 86% said they can have a “good relationship with God without belonging to a church.”
To many people, focusing on their “inner life” means cultivating a closer relationship with God, perhaps by developing a meditation or prayer practice or developing other spiritual disciplines. To others, it may be a more secular quest for tranquility and connectedness.
“An inner life is something everybody has, but we lose touch with it,” says Bill Dietrich, executive director of the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation in Bethesda, Md. As Americans, “our lives don’t support a contemplative lifestyle” so much as “a constant search for efficiency. We’ve got to have some way of breaking through to what’s really important for us, and spiritual discipline helps us to do that.”
Whether religious or secular in nature, Dietrich and others say, an inner life blossoms as its four key components are purposefully cultivated. These involve:
*Taking time for quiet and solitude.
*Cultivating some type of regular spiritual practice or discipline.
*Grounding this spiritual practice in the support of a community.
*Bringing reflection and heightened awareness to everything you do.
Such undertakings can provide a refreshing change of perspective and an antidote to stress and worry.
Patricia Carlson, executive director of A Network for Grateful Living, an online community that encourages gratefulness as a spiritual practice, says “people feel very depleted right now and stressed out and overly busy, oftentimes despairing about world situations.” This fosters an overall sense of unease, she says, that can be tough to dispel without intentional effort.
Intentional effort can entail a traditional spiritual practice or some other activity that clears the mind by freeing it from the distractions of ordinary thinking. Many people combine several practices.
Back to basics
Steve Clark, pastor of the Evangelical Free Church of Salt Lake City, reads a few Bible passages each morning and prays for understanding before his children wake up.
Dietrich, a Quaker who meditates regularly, also makes hiking a spiritual practice by being “aware of everything around me.”
Christians have in recent years fueled a surge of interest in traditional practices, such as “praying the hours,” which involves reciting prayers and psalms at specified times of day, similar to monastic prayers.
Others make a spiritual practice of crafts and handiwork such as knitting and quilting, says Lynn Garrett, religion editor of Publishers Weekly, who notes that books about the spirituality of crafts are steady sellers.
“We live in such a noisy culture, such a culture of distraction,” Garrett says. “One of the benefits of all these practices — prayer, meditation or even crafting — is to focus attention and create some quiet mental space. People are really hungry for that.”
Choosing a spiritual practice shouldn’t be an arbitrary process, says Christopher Beeley, an Episcopal priest and assistant professor of early Christian theology at Yale Divinity School.
He suggests people “begin by reflecting on what is most important to them, preferably in conversation with time-honored spiritual teachings, and by developing the practices that best support those values and beliefs.”
Community is key
Embarking on the purposeful inner life means daring to be alone in silence at times, but that doesn’t mean cutting oneself off altogether from other people. On the contrary, Dietrich says, community is “critical” to keep the process fruitful.
“When left to our own devices, human beings can come up with unlimited delusions,” Dietrich says. “We need somewhere we can go to test our own reality.”
Community connections to support the inner life can take various forms. A person might share experiences in a faith community, in a support group, in psychotherapy or in spiritual direction, which involves working with a trained guide in matters of the spirit, Beeley says. He says the process of reflecting with partners should help clarify the ultimate values that guide an individual’s life.
Relying on communities to guide introspective processes is a principle that resonates with the religious and secular alike.
Christians need time alone in prayer, but they burn out unless they stay in touch with a larger group of believers, says Gary Thomas, founder of the Center for Evangelical Spirituality in Bellingham, Wash.
In contemplation, “you go into your closet, and you get God’s heart and you’re motivated to work on behalf of God’s kingdom,” Thomas says. “But if you focus too much on the contemplative life, you become sort of like the marathoner who’s always carbo-loading and never racing. You become bloated and slow. … So accountability (to a group) is important.”
By contrast, Kerry Odell, a Scripps College economist from Upland, Calif., doesn’t belong to a faith community or believe in God, though she says she is open to the prospect. She has been on a search for meaning since she turned 40 nine years ago and began asking deeper questions. She makes it a point to reflect and feel grateful when she walks with her dog, Finn, but she also makes sure to stay close with a community of friends.
To hear a friend’s viewpoint “is putting on a pair of glasses,” Odell says. “Getting a pat on the back or a cheering section … a companion, a listener, is a wonderful thing.”
Though some find benefits in sticking to a regimented schedule, not everyone finds it easy — or even possible — to do so.
“I set up a little corner of my house with a candle and a comfortable chair and these great plans to spend a half an hour there every day, but I don’t do it,” Odell says. “I keep hoping I will.”
Nevertheless, Odell has found ways to expand her inner life. She has attended about eight three-day retreats held at monasteries over the past three years.
Silence doesn’t come easily to everyone: A completely silent retreat, she says, can seem “like a prolonged time inside an elevator.” But on the whole, she relishes the chance to escape from the steady noise that marks her daily life.
Seeking out silence
Those who host retreats say there’s a need for what they have to offer. Sometimes, more than any words of wisdom or guidance, people crave silence and may need to get away in order to experience it, says Sister Jeanne Ranek, director of the Benedictine Peace Center, which hosts retreats at the Sacred Heart Monastery in Yankton, S.D.
Those who attend retreats “look to surround themselves for a while with some external peace to get in touch with the inner peace so they can go back refreshed and renewed,” she says.
Living the inner life amid the daily demands of work, school and home poses substantial challenges, but it is in ordinary routines that a contemplative habit gets reinforced.
To teach the art of heightened awareness, Rabbi Mike Comins of Los Angeles leads groups on tours where he provides instruction in “meditative walking” in wilderness areas. Participants learn to listen using “the right side of their brain,” which is associated with intuition and creativity rather than language. The result, he says, is a greater sensitivity to one’s surroundings — and an emerging skill set that helps people attend to what’s most important when they return to civilization.
“People should wonder: ‘On the day before my death, am I going to look back and say I made good decisions?'” says Comins, author of A Wild Faith: Jewish Ways Into Wilderness, Wilderness Ways into Judaism. “A spiritual practice should get you to do that long before that day. Wilderness helps because you see (the fragility of life) all around you. … Wilderness just naturally makes you mindful because, far from hospitals, you pay big time if you’re not mindful” in that environment.
Americans are using daily activities to strengthen habits of mindfulness, says Columbia University sociologist of religion Courtney Bender, who sees busy people increasingly making routines such as jogging or cooking into meditative activities.
Those who cook with raised awareness, she says, seem to experience connections with nature and neighbor that they might otherwise miss.
“You’re talking about people who are already hard-pressed for time,” Bender says. “They don’t have to take on a new project. They can just think differently about the things they’re already doing.”


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