Survival Habits of the Soul
by Ken Shigematsu
Even though I’ve been out of school for many years, I still have nightmares where I am a student completely unprepared for a French or math exam. I feel the pressure to perform, like when I played competitive basketball and I had teammates depending on me. That pressure to achieve and succeed was there when I worked for Sony in Tokyo, too.
And it has followed me in my work as a pastor.
Even though some think of ministry as a less competitive, more spiritual vocation, I found the transition from the business world to the Church didn’t free me from feeling I needed to make something exceptional of my life and ministry.
I feel a burden to achieve – to overcome my feeling of not enoughness through what I do.
Many of us understand intellectually we are loved by God, but in our day-to-day experience we continue to measure our value by our success, our outward appearance, and how others view us.
Truly knowing we are deeply loved by our Creator frees us to pursue a life of significant, enduring achievement and contribution – a life not driven by fear and anxiety, but one that springs from a deep well of joy and gratitude for the love and grace God has shown us.
Spiritual practices attune us to God’s loving presence, acting as sticky note reminders that God is with us all the time. They open the ear of our spirit to hear the sacred voice that calls us, the beloved.
One of the most powerful spiritual practices that helps me awaken to God’s love is meditation. When I wake up in the morning, I make a conscious choice not to check my email, text messages or the internet. Are these things bad or wrong? No. But I know these things will get my mind racing in different directions, and my thinking will quickly become dominated by my to-do list. So I avoid this.
Instead, I begin each morning by sitting and breathing deeply for 15 or 20 minutes. This practice helps to still my busy brain. After a couple of deep breaths, I start to wonder how much time has gone by. So I will set a timer on my phone for 15 or 20 minutes using an app called Centering Prayer. I breathe deeply, but soon start to think of all the things I need to do that day. To still my mind I grab my Bible and take a single word to help me focus – like wait as in “wait on God” from Isaiah 40, or the phrase from the blind beggar in the Gospel of John, “Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
When I am really distracted, which is often, I find it helpful to count. Japanese Zen monks (I am open to learning from anyone who helps me focus on Christ) encourage mediators to breathe in and out deeply through the nose. They advised that when we feel distracted, we should focus on our breathing and start counting breaths from one to ten.
“When inhaling,” they explain, “count an odd number and when exhaling count an even number. Count only to ten and then repeat the sequence.”
This pattern of inhaling while counting one, and exhaling while counting two, inhaling and counting three, and exhaling and counting four really helps settle my busy mind and makes me more aware of God’s presence. We Christians who engage in deep-breathing meditation believe we not only experience neurological changes in our brain, but we are actually encountering the Spirit of God. Our breath may actually become a gateway through which we experience the breath of God. Some theologians contend the personal name of God, Yahweh, is not so much a name, but an attempt to describe the act of breathing: Yah (breathe in), weh (breathe out). In the Scriptures another Hebrew word – ruach – can be translated breath or spirit. This word also points to how our breathing can be a means by which we more fully inhale the very breath or Spirit of God.
When I finish my morning meditation, I feel more aware of God’s loving presence that upholds me and the whole world. God is with us all the time. In prayer we don’t invoke God’s presence, we simply awaken to the God of love who is always present with us.
Thanks largely to the spiritual practices such as silent prayer (gratitude exercises, Sabbath keeping, Simplicity, and Spiritual Friendship) which I describe in Survival Guide for the Soul, I’ve become much more aware of God’s love for me. I feel far less anxious about needing to do something to earn God’s approval because I know I am a beloved son. Yet I also want to do my best for God out of a deep sense of love, reverence and gratitude. This is my hope and prayer for you as well.
May you live more fully in the knowledge the Creator of the universe cherishes you as a daughter or son. May you live a life of daring courageousness, deep peace and generous contribution as you come to be loved and to love more and more abundantly.
Ken Shigematsu is pastor of Tenth Church in Vancouver and an author. This article is adapted from his new book Survival Guide for the Soul (www.SurvivalGuideForTheSoul.com).