Lenten Practice: Deep Listening and Scriptural Reflection (Feb 2020)
Inspired by Yoga Sutra 2.1, yoga in action is composed of austerity, self-study, and trustful surrender to the Lord, Doreen offers two practices for Lent.
For Lent, some churches focus on their members growing in spirit by giving something up, others suggest adding something into daily life, and some do both. Where did this idea come from?
As a Presbyterian, I did not grow up with this tradition, but when I started teaching contemplative practices, it was mostly Catholic women who came to the classes. They told me that for Lent, the church advised them to do three things: commit so some sort of fast (like giving up sweets or meat on Fridays), give alms (offerings) to the poor and pray by taking up a daily devotional. These practices are designed to draw them closer to God and to imitate Jesus’ time in the desert.
Jesus spent 40 days listening in the wilderness, strengthening his connection to Abba and disconnecting from the temptations of Satan. We too need to refine our capacity to listen to God and to say ‘no’ to Satan. Despite having been gifted with Grace and forgiveness, effort is still required.
In the yoga tradition, a similar practice exists, although it does not link up to a time of year. Applying it has helped me to draw closer to God.
Yoga Sutra 2.1 lists three components as a practical means to progress spiritually: tapah svadhyaya isvara pranidhana kriya yogah
“Yoga in action is composed of austerity, self-study, and trustful surrender to the Lord.”
Austerity (tapas) is sometimes translated as “heat” to purify body and mind, and my favorite translation is ‘disciplined effort’. Tapas is both our own effort and the heat that the Divine gives back to our effort. It takes some free will and our own effort but there is also a sense of being pulled into it by Grace. Postures are tapas for the body and meditation is tapas for the mind.
Self-study (svadhyaya) is witnessing your thoughts and actions. It also means scriptural-study as a way to better understand purpose and relationship with the Divine.
Trustful Surrender to the Divine (Ishvara pranidhana) is the willingness to be led by something higher than your own ego; surrender doesn’t mean ‘to give up’, but ‘to give over’ to. It is an attitude. Another beautiful translation from Mukunda Stiles states: ‘to place oneself under the fullness of the Divine’.
These three don’t directly line up with the Christian principles of fast, give alms and pray, but the ideas of purification and devotion do. They suggest the basic principles of cleansing and nourishing. Both threesomes lead us towards a clearer connection with the Divine. Tapas and svadyaya, like fasting, burn off impurities and reveal our true nature as Light, as the image of God. Trustful surrender, like prayer, is a form of nourishment and devotion. To give alms freely and willingly, a sense of trustful surrender and willingness to let go is required. That is a form of self-study - to learn where you are attached to the gifts you are being asked to give, and it requires heat to let go. You might think of these three yogic principles as underlying supports to allow you to be like Jesus in the desert, to strengthen your connection to Abba and disconnect from the temptations of Satan.
So if you want to give something up (cleanse) and add something in (nourish) you might try these practices.
Suggested Daily Practices for Lent
Practice 1: Replace Social Media Time* with Sermon on the Mount If you tend to look at social media or news daily or many times a day, consider limiting it. During the day when you are tempted to look at social media, do the following:
Notice your body’s visceral cravings for what I call “the dopamine hit” of viewing something on the screen. (See below for article link.)
Instead of the usual sites, go to Biblegateway.com and read Matthew 5-7.
Read a second version; notice how different translations highlight the teaching. Pause and reflect.
*If you don’t use social media, scan your days and notice where you waste time, (e.g. long hours with TV, over-staying in bed, shopping or other) and replace those behaviors with Practice 1.
Practice 2: Commit to deep listening and scriptural study
Place: Establish a place in your home where you can sit quietly, (a comfortable chair, or props on the floor, a bed with pillows so you can sit upright). Make it a room where you can close the door and leave out animals, children and screens. Create a simple alter and place a Bible there with the book of Matthew marked.
Time: Identify a time of day that you generally are free for 15-30 minutes. (Getting up a bit earlier is the most likely option if you tend to be busy all day and evening. Before work, during a meal break or before sleep are other possibilities.)
Scripture: Matthew Chapters 5-7 (Sermon on the Mount)
The Practice 1. Prepare Do a few stretches to settle the body. Sit upright and supported and bring attention to your breath. Close your eyes. Establish a steady comfortably deep breath pattern. Scan the body from top to bottom and soften any tension. Return upward and settle at the heart center 2. Ponder The Scripture Open your eyes and read a passage from Matthew. Close your eyes, settle into a steady breath and relaxed body. Scan the body again if necessary. With attention at the heart center, ponder the scripture. Open your eyes and re-read the passage. 3. Pray Spend the last few minutes consciously placing yourself “under the fullness of the Divine,” cultivating an attitude of giving yourself over. Pray for the (tapas) heat necessary to make progress: the will to continue your own disciplined effort coupled with the sense of being pulled into this heat by Grace. Pray for guidance and for next steps Move back into your day or evening refreshed, focused, redirected.
Note on reading: You might start at the beginning of Matthew on Ash Wednesday and read a section each day or you may randomly pick a section each time you sit. Or you may read the same passage for several days and ponder it.
More from a Harvard study on dopamine hits from social media.
References: The Practice of the Yoga Sutra, Sadhana Pada by Pandit Rajmani Tigunait & Yoga Sutra of Patanjali by Mukunda Stiles