In Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Thomas Merton writes, ‘Solitude is to be preserved, not as a luxury but as a necessity: not for “perfection” so much as for simple “survival” in the life God has given you.’ The significance of his statement has been becoming more real to me, not only as it applies to solitude but to spiritual disciplines in general.
Intentionally practicing spiritual disciplines is a relatively new thing for me. And I’m not even very good at them! I didn’t consciously put any serious thought or effort into following regular spiritual routines until this year really. I didn’t start to seriously consider disciplines because I’m super-spiritual either; I was forced to find relief because I felt like I was falling apart. Oblivious to my own spiritual sickness, my inner world was crashing down. It wasn’t until I was a depressed and disoriented mess that I gave spiritual disciplines serious consideration.
There’s a lot I could write about my experiences and motivation to change, more than I’ll share right now. Though, two practices are worth mentioning because they have been really helpful to me: meditation and simplicity.
Regularly meditating has had many benefits. My mind can be my own worst enemy at times. Whether I want it to be or not, my mind tends to be really active, often over-active. Just when I need to focus, it’s distracted. Just when I need to relax, it’s blitzing. I also usually let my mind wander wherever it pleases, passively allowing my mind to control my will. Meditating has limited my mental mayhem and been a huge source of relief, clarity, and peace. Revving my mind down is not always easy, but I’m learning that meditating is a helpful way to calm down. It is also a wonderful way to intentionally listen and be present to God. I’ve noticed through meditating that I’ve gained a bit more mental control over the mayhem too. In other words, I’ve been learning to develop mental intentionality, to develop my will and not succumb to being a passive victim to my thoughts. And don’t get the wrong impression: my progress has been slight—but it has also been significant.
Practicing simplicity has also had its benefits. That statement may sound odd (What does it even mean to ‘practice simplicity’?) What I mean is regularly and intentionally simplifying life. I mean making a commitment to live simply. I haven’t become a monk or joined an Amish community, either. I’ve just been trying to simplify ordinary things and routines. Like what I will invest work into and what I will do to rest. Like being intentional about what I devote time to and who I spend time with. As I’ve done this, I’ve been amazed as I’ve realized how much time and energy I used to unwittingly spend doing totally random things that didn’t help me work or rest or be with people I care about.
In my experience, it’s easy for my life to get really full and chaotic and overwhelming. Saying that may make people who know me laugh, since outwardly I appear pretty boring. But meditating and practicing simplicity are helping me stay inwardly balanced. These disciplines are helping me focus on what matters to me. I think it’s safe to say that we each need to make a habit of turning down the volume, slowing down the pace, and focusing our attention, given how noisy, busy, and excessive our culture can be. These disciplines act as counterbalances to the noise, busyness, and excess. And similar to Merton’s suggestion, they should not be viewed as luxuries. They are necessary for survival.