Just Sit There

If you’ve ever tried to be still, just still, you know how hard this is.

We long for noise, distractions–anything to spare us from admitting to ourselves that things are not as they should be: TV, books, music, other people, complaining, that non-stop, self-serving, chatterbox we call our “thoughts.”

Why is it so hard to be alone? Perhaps because we feel awkward in unfamiliar company.

Isn’t it true of human beings that no matter what we may do, the best of what we name ‘me’ seems to elude our understsanding? Why is it that no matter what I do, and even at times do well, I am never satisfied? Why, when I am honest with myself, do I discover that I am always on a hunt, not even particularly knowing what I am hunting for” (Listen to the Desert, 3).

Just sit there. Without distractions. If you are feeling brave, even (try to) tell your mind to take a chill pill for 10 minutes. Just sit there. Alone.

It takes courage to move into unfamiliar territory.

It is no small act of courage to face squarely the fictions of your life and the troubling sense that something isn’t quite right about our life. Scapegoating, excuses, self-pity, are common disguises that shield us from deep-seated doubt. These fictions, these acceptable deceptions, are the way we distract ourselves from the nagging suspicion that at the bottom of what I call ‘me’ is something terribly disturbing” (LTTD, 5).

Isolation was a habit the desert fathers and mothers cultivated. They would sit in their cells, alone. They knew there was a valuable lesson to be learned there–alone with only themselves, without the distractions of the games we play with others and ourselves.

Alone, in your cell–whether actual or metaphorical–is where you learn what you need to know about who you are…who you really are. No gimmicks.

Sitting in their cell was no cowardly removal from the bad old nasty world. They were not shrinking from the world. They were brave enough to face themselves, and knew that the demands of daily life worked non-stop to keep them in a dream-existence of their own making.

Neither is this narcissistic self-absorption. That is what happens when we look inward a few millimeters, allowing our false selves to remain unchecked. Leave that to Oprah and Dr. Phil. God will not guide you there.

What the desert dwellers were after was a clear, unburdened, honest view into themselves. And this takes guts.

Do not many of us lack the courage to look into ourselves and name what we see for what it is? Would we not rather look at others and name their shortcomings?

How many truly know themselves with brutal, god-like, honesty?

Learning to be alone a little more can be a beginning to seeing past the masks we wear, not only to posture for others, but for ourselves–because we do not want to see what is there.

And so much of our private and public posturing happens in church.

Maybe God calls us inward from time to time. At the end of the day–both literally and metaphorical of death–our true selves cannot be propped up by others or our false selves.

If we accustomedly flee our loneliness and the lessons it has to teach us, hiding behind the excitement around us and in social company, then we will greet [this] advice with a goodly portion of dread. If, on the other hand, we are weary of the shallow trivialities of the social order and afflicted by the inane discourse of most human communication, then you will likely feel relief at the advice….Whichever way we react, we do not enter the cell alone” (LTTD, 8)

[This post is based on chapter one of Listen to the Desert, Gregory Mayers: "Your Cell Will Teach You."]

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  • jon hughes

    Peter,

    How much more do we need this in a (distracted) age of blogging, tweeting, and the dreaded facebook!

    • peteenns

      Agreed, although you appreciate the irony of using these media to get the word out :-)

      • jon hughes

        Indeed!

        I’d rather have it than not. But the truth is that I pray less than I used to, as a direct consequence of the social media; getting distracted with reading and responding to posts – when (probably) more often than not, I’d be better off getting alone with God.

        Will anyone, on their death-bed, wish that they had spent *more* time on the social media, compared with their own families and God?

  • http://missionaljourneyman.com Adam Gonnerman

    This morning on the way to work I listened to music via Pandora, switched once I was on the train over to a show on Netflix, and then a little later read a little of one of my Kindle books. That got me thinking about how so many of us nowadays seem to need to have constant input, some sort of distraction.

    I was raised on a farm over 3 hours from the nearest airport. We had three channels on our TV. The Internet at that time was still for researchers and engineers only, and besides that we didn’t own a computer. In the summers I had books and a lot of time to think.

    I’m grateful for the time I had to reflect on life, early on. I’m also glad for the technological advancements that put information at my fingertips and let me be in constant contact with others.

    The silence is good, and so is the activity.

    • peteenns

      Great story, Adam. Some of us still remember the pre-PC and internet days.

  • http://www.twitter.com/AnwothWill Will

    I’ve read quite a few challenging blog posts in the last couple of years, but this one hurt the most. I feel very strongly the “need” for noise and constant input, and I don’t get nearly enough alone time. It’s my own fault. I desperately need it. Thank you for the reminder.

  • http://lisesletters.wordpress.com Lise

    What great responses to a lovely post. I remember those pre-internet and pre-PC days. Our disconnect with nature doesn’t help with the constant stimuli overload either.

    The issues addressed in these excerpts don’t seem to be a part of every day discourse on Christian faith and yet from my vantage point what Mayers refers to is critical to spiritual evolution and authentic, intimate connection with God. I have long been fascinated by Moses’ sojourns on the mountain with God wondering what that encounter was like experientially for Moses. Yet regardless of whether it was hard for Moses to sit still, I’ve always been delighted and touched by the fact that afterwards “the skin of his face was shining.” Perhaps as we “sit” we unveil our faces and let his light shine through us more.

    There are so many reasons why we humans (and our society in particular) struggle to simply “be”. Fundamentally, I think we become afraid – of feeling, of truth, of the unknown, perhaps even of God. As a psychotherapist, I find that one of my tasks is to help clients move beyond rhetoric that can serve as one more mask to hide behind. When I sense the airplane is circling but not landing, I often ask folks to sit in silence for awhile in order to elicit this face-to-face encounter – with themselves, with other group members, with myself, and if they are of faith, then with God. Whether through mindfulness meditation or art or prayer, we have to make space for the truth of the Holy Spirit to enter. In fact, it never ceases to amaze me that in a Christian church service rarely do I witness a period of silence that lasts longer than a minute.

    I surf and although surfing does not by any means replace fellowship, worship or sermons, sometimes I love to attend what I now affectionately call “The Church of the Pacific.” People don’t text when in the ocean but they do in church. On a wave, thought, feeling and motion become their own form of trinity. :)

  • davey

    Well, I’ve seen somewhat of Oprah, and no Dr Phil, and note that these are said to be superficial – we need a more gutsy look into our selves. Is this to be found in Mayers, or Ken Wilber? Why would one want to claim that? Or the desert fathers and mothers? Perhaps because they spent years alone? How is ten minutes a day supposed to do the trick? I find the desert fathers and mothers to be human beings troubled in that particular way that they do what they do, with nothing to bring back from years of meditation that is any different than is available in living an ordinary life. Have they nevertheless been called by God to that? I’ve already said I doubt it.

    Of course, in the end it is all the grace of God. But God works mysteriously, apparently letting some people live in nothing but troubles, whether alone or in company, all their lives, as their entrance to the kingdom.

  • J.Johnson

    I find that it is very helpful to turn off the noise. I now drive in silence. I spend a lot of time on the road driving my little young people around. They at first had a hard time with the silence but now we all like it. I have also found that my three young ones get along much better as well. I know I am driving and that it doesn’t completely alow me to totally stop and focus. Yet it helps me to focus more on life then before. It is a first step but a step no less. I have noticed great bennifets, I am less overwelmed, frazzled, and running with out direction. My prayer life has greatly increased plus I have time to listen to God with out the consant niose to block out what He has to share with me. I would agree it is nice to have contact and info at my fingure tips. I have also found that this consant need to “plug in” to have contact was just filling my time and tricking me into being alone. At the end of the day all the texting, bloging, tweeting, emails, or messaging doesn’t compare to real face time on a great hug. All this from my quiet time in the van. The silly thing is that now when we are at home for a day we can’t wait for a drive.

  • Jeff

    Thanks so much, Pete.

    Technology and entertainment has, I think, among other things, hindered the need for “hope.” It is easier to fill the empty spaces of our hearts with snippets & bursts of 24/7 entertainment or work. There are now a thousand dead end streets. One hopes we can see this and then turn within ourselves to solitude – where it is only myself and God.

    I stopped listening to the radio in the car a couple of years ago. I have found this solitude & silence deeply refreshing; thinking, pondering (albeit a bit dangerous while driving!). Jesus himself taught us in often going away to the wilderness alone. If he needed escape from the busy-ness of life and the crowds – how much more do we, for the health of our souls in an age in which one may be tuned in 24/7?

    I think we do “tune in” or “surf” often to fill the void of the emptiness within us – left from the fall and the absence of God – but that “fix” will not do.

    • J. Johnson

      Jeff I think you are vey right. And yes I have found that I have been distracted by my thoughts while driving too. But I don’t believe that it is even as close to as dangerous as being consantly distracted or using a cell phone. I was just reading last night about how we should offer up every waking hour, and every task to God in prayer. Also how we should weigh all our decisions to wether or not they bring us closer to holiness. That includes what we read, watch, listen too, eat, wear, say, and do. Then to top it off pray that God will show us and reveal to us the correct path while doing any of those things. That is very sobbering when thinking about listening to the radio, or watching a movie, picking up a book, or having a conversation. It has given me lots to ponder.

  • http://apprising.org Ken Silva

    “our true selves cannot be propped up by others or our false selves.”

    I’m afraid this true/false self is the same: Man’s corrupt and degenerate sinful nature. Jesus says it’s evil (cf. Gen. 8:21; Matt. 7:11; Mark 7:20-23).

    Only Christ, not a cave, can cure it.

    • peteenns

      Ken, as the desert fathers, I am writing within a Christian context. No one is talking about a cave saving anyone.

  • Sheri

    When my every thought became captive to the Facebook status, I “deleted” my account. I’m back to reading the Bible (and other inspired texts), meditating and waiting on the LORD. I hear His Voice more clearly in solitude. When we sacrifice “self” (thinking and doing) for “being” with God, and we find communion with Him and our soul. Mercy becomes possible. JC mentioned to love God with our body, mind and soul: sitting still in silence seems to do that the best for me anyway. Thanks for your lovely article.


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