3 Spiritual Exercises to See Like a Mystic

3 Spiritual Exercises to See Like a Mystic July 20, 2023

see like a mystic
Robert Lukeman via Unsplash

In Richard Rohr’s The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See, the Franciscan friar has an ambitious goal. He wants us to see like a Christian mystic. That’s a little daunting, because mystics see the world a little differently than you or me, or for that matter many who call themselves religious. The mystics are all about the direct, inner experience of God.

Religion often points to God, keeping a polite distance. But the mystics, like Julian of Norwich and Teresa of Avila, prefer to immerse themselves in God. The God they seek is not in the heavens but is contained within their very being, as close as their own breath. This God is not found in the afterlife but is present right now at this very moment. As Rohr explains, for the mystics, and for you and me today:

It is not a search for perfection or control or the door to the next world; it is a search for divine union now. The great discovery is always that what we are searching for has already been given! I did not find it; it found me.

In the book Christian Meditation, James Finley, a former Trappist monk who studied closely with Thomas Merton, also speaks of the Christian mystics. He explains that the mystics “use the terms contemplation and mystical union with God to refer not to visions and other similar experiences, but rather to a life-transforming realization of oneness with God.”

The one thing that may get in the way: our ego.

One key to getting into the same state of mind as the mystics: We must diminish the ego, our sense of self-importance and the belief we are the masters of our universe. According to Rohr, “Ego is not bad; it is just what takes over when you do not see truthfully and completely. That “lamp” does not illuminate well.”

Finley also does not want to denigrate the ego too much, pointing out, “Our ego consciousness is a precious gift from God. God wants us to have a healthy ego, because when our ego consciousness is not healthy, we suffer and those around us suffer.” But he goes on to say that we need to tame the ego, so it’s not our primary motivator in life, and meditation and can help do that. In his words:

Through meditation we can learn to be less anxious, less depressed, less addictive—in short, less subject to all the ways in which we as human beings suffer and, in our suffering, contribute to the suffering of others.

But how do you get to the point where you can subsume your ego and bring your heart and soul to the forefront? One key, according to Rohr, may be the ability to “discover a detached place of quiet self-observation” through meditation or contemplation. In this place you can be “compassionate and calmly objective” about your life. The goal is to live with a “joyful mind,” a state where:

  • Your mind does not need to be right
  • You no longer compare yourself to others
  • You live in contentment with whatever the moment offers
  • Your mind follows the intelligent lead of your heart
  • You are curious and interested, not suspicious and interrogating
  • You can accept yourself as you are, warts and all
  • You can find God in all things and in yourself

What follows is a short guide to 3 spiritual practices.

These exercises encompass both contemplation and meditation and can get us to start thinking and feeling like a mystic. The first two come from Richard Rohr who says “contemplation is an exercise in keeping your heart and mind spaces open long enough for the mind to see other hidden material.” The final exercise is from James Finley who adds “contemplation is a state of realized oneness with God. When engage in contemplation, we rest in God resting in us.” Each has been lightly edited. Also: You may want to pick and choose the elements that work best for you and combine them into a single practice.

Spiritual Exercise #1: Practicing Awareness

“When you can be present, you will know the Real Presence,” advises Richard Rohr. This exercise is meant to take us out of our natural state of sitting and judging the world around us, but instead connects us to it. Rohr explains, the goal is “a form of nondual consciousness, a way to move away from the judgements of the ego and see that we are part of a bigger whole, connected to all things.”

  1. With your senses, not so much your mind, focus on one single object until you stop fighting it or resisting it with other concerns. It might be a tree in your backyard or a plant or keepsake on the table in front of you.
  2. Do not to judge the object in any way. This is merely the need of the ego to categorize and control. Simply look at it, withholding judgement.
  3. “Listen” to the object and allow it to “speak” to you. Allow a simple dialogue to happen. Silently speak back to it with respect and curiosity.
  4. A kind of contented spaciousness and silence will normally ensue. You may come to realize that you are not separate from the world, you are intimately connected to it.

Spiritual Exercise #2: “Welling Up”

This simple exercise from Rohr begins by trying to get us out of our heads and into our hearts. The key here is to actively focus your attention on the heart area and realize the great depth and spaciousness that exists there.

  1. Try to stay “beneath” your thoughts, neither fighting them nor thinking them.
  2. Hold yourself at a deeper level, perhaps in your chest or solar plexus. Stay in your body, do not rise to the mind. It may feel like “nothing” or just darkness.
  3. Stay “crouched” there. Long enough for another Source to “well up” and flow within you.
  4. From this place, let love flow through you from the Source, as an energy more than an idea. The love of God is in you and courses through you.
  5. “Become” what you are looking for and hope to see.

Spiritual Exercise #3: “Christian” Meditation

This exercise is a clipped version of a chapter on meditation practice from Finley’s book. As he points out, there is actually no such thing as “Christian” meditation, but this practice, similar to centering prayer, has been around for centuries. It follows the trajectory of many typical meditation exercises but with fresh language.

  1. Sit still and straight. Take a few minutes to settle into the sense of simply sitting there.
  2. Close your eyes or lower them to the ground.
  3. Breathe in and out slowly, in a natural relaxed manner. Settle into your breathing. Listen to each life-sustaining breath.
  4. Use your awareness of your breathing as an anchoring place in present-moment attentiveness. Each time you realize you have drifted into daydreaming or clinging to a thought, simple renew your awareness of your breathing as a way of bringing yourself to the present moment.
  5. Be present, open, and awake to everything. As each thought arises, simply be present, open, and awake to it as it arrives. Settle back and observe it until the thought passes.
  6. Do the same with any outside sounds you might hear, the sound of a car passing by, a clock chiming, or the air conditioning turning on or off. Be present, open, and awake to them as they arise and pass away.
  7. If you’re having difficulty achieving present-moment attentiveness, use the silent, interior repetition of a word or phrase. Finley suggests “God, mercy, or Jesus” though it can be any word that has special meaning to you.

A parting thought from Finley, on the restorative effects of simply sitting still and being silent. An act that requires little effort on our part:

If you did nothing but simply sit each day, silent and still, attentive to your breathing, with your eyes closed or lowered toward the ground, you would be doing yourself a huge favor. You would be starting the long journey home into God, who lies hidden deep within your being.

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