J. Dana Trent

Author of the interfaith memoir, Saffron Cross

Be Still: How a “Busy” Woman Made Time for Contemplation

Photo credit: Jim Harris

Me, in 2013 with japa prayer beads. Photo credit: Jim Harris

In Saffron Cross, I wrote about my husband’s morning devotional practice, a routine stemming from his service as a Hindu monk and priest.

It wasn’t until I met Fred that I began to discern what such a practice might look like for me, and when I did—I was always quick to let it slide to the bottom of my to-do list. Even after five years of being married to a someone with an intense spiritual discipline, contemplation didn’t come naturally to me.

“Busy,” is my answer for everything, and I would rather “busy” myself ragged than set aside time for silence and stillness. I think most of us would.

And, since owning an iPhone, contemplation seemed even further out of reach. Until a few months ago, I woke each morning to a screen that allowed me to check social media, email, and fire my brain into a frenzy of the day’s anxieties—all before I rolled out of bed.

At breakfast, instead of turning to more thoughtful virtual content, I’d take in another dose of net, checking People.com or catching up on The Young and the Restless spoilers.  Why meditate when you can drool over Channing Tatum’s abs?

Once I’d clogged my brain with mush, I’d multi-task my way through a poorly prioritized list. Emails popped up, Twitter pinged, and I found myself running around all day, like a puppy tempted with sticks.

At bedtime, I was exhausted and frustrated. What did I accomplish today that actually felt like living? How did my life get to be this full, and yet so unfulfilling?

In his recent interview with Krista Tippet on The Art of Stillness, Pico Iyer helps us uncover one of the culprits of today’s stillness-averse culture:

“But what’s different today, I think, is that so many of us have more and more information, and less and less time and space to make sense of it. We have more and more ‘time-saving’ devices, yet less and less time, it seems. We can make better and better contact with people across the globe, but in the same breath, it sometimes feels, we lose contact with ourselves.” Pico Iyer, “We Are Living at a Post-Human Pace” 

Prior to a recent tech slow down, I was absorbing far more information than was useful, convincing myself that having something to do 24-7 was better than offering myself sacred space to ponder the big stuff. As a result, my daily devotional practice gathered dust, and my spiritual well-being withered.  Like Iyer suggests, I lost contact with myself.

But then, two things happened:

First, Fred and I accepted an invitation to teach three sessions on the practice of contemplative prayer and meditation for this month’s Upper Room Spirituality Conference, SOULfeast: Renew Your People. I knew that if I were going to teach others how to do this, I had better do it myself—immediately.

Second, Lent arrived, and Fred and I were in need of a 40-day inspiration to rejoin Jesus in the wilderness. We opted for tech-free Sundays, a throwback to simpler times and sabbaths. We vowed to unplug and “unbusy” ourselves at least one day per week.

I now had two motivators that helped me reorient my days. So, I set parameters to guide me toward more contemplative time. Here were my rules: 

1) Do not get sucked into mundane Hollywood drama in order to wake up. I determined I would instead read chapters of a thoughtful book, my Upper Room Magazine, or content that helped me wake up, but not in an anxiety-filled way.

2) Read or listen to only “good” stuff for breaks. After my morning devotional, on days I don’t teach, I begin an intense writing and editing work. When I’m in need of a break, I used to do chores (laundry, dishes, straightening with the Flylady system) while listening to the never-ending Victor-Nikki drama on Y&R. I replaced my favorite soap with educational podcasts like Krista Tippet’s On Being and The Tim Ferriss ShowI listened to only what is uplifting, insightful, and that which makes me what to be a better person.

3) Decrease social media intake. Social media is so wonderful for so many reasons, but it can also reinforce feelings of low self-worth and envy. We’ve all been there: we log on to Facebook or Twitter in a good mood, only to find ourselves irritated five minutes later. Throughout the day, I’ve begun to limit my social media intake, determining the minimum effective dose of fulfillment that can come from connecting on Facebook and Twitter.

4) Put contemplative time on the calendar. Besides the morning practice, I schedule in time for meditation practice throughout the day, using the Calm.com app for several minutes (yes, just minutes–one must start small!) of centering prayer or silence.

The result:

My brain now feels less clogged with content that brought nothing but anxiety. I’m more connected to my inner self, which as a practicing Christian, means a connection with God. I can be still. I now sense the bigger picture of what comprises my day and thus, my purpose.

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. –Annie Dillard, The Writing Life 

And, lest we think this sort of contemplative life is only for monks and Wendell Berry, we should think again.

Reflection is for everyone: the religious, the non-religious, the Christian, the Hindu, the Buddhist, the Agnostic or Atheist. We can all benefit from slowing down and making space to think about what’s meaningful. We only have to say “no!” to the forces that tempt us from solitude.

I’m still a fledgling on this contemplative journey, but I’m willing to keep trying each day—an intention that carries me much further than any celebrity gossip ever did.

Do you have a contemplative practice? Share your experiences and tips below–your story may inspire someone else to try going inward.

Don’t yet have a practice? Visit Calm.com or Do Nothing for Two Minutes. Just be. Notice your breath. Slow down your heart rate. Hold a beloved one in your mind’s eye. Repeat a sacred piece of scripture.

Fred and I are looking forward to teaching this practice week after next at SOULfeast, in the lush NC mountains. It will be a time for a time for both community and solitude, to renew and rebuild.

Have you registered for SOULfeast? It’s not too late! If you’re attending, please consider joining us for three morning sessions on “Be Still: Discovering God’s Presence Through Meditation,”

For more on Pico Iyer and The Art of Stillness, check out his TED Talk:

6 Comments

  1. Gopal Nandini

    July 4, 2015 at 7:33 am

    Thanks for the reminder, Dana! I think you and I are living kind of parallel lives! My practice comes and goes, often getting replaced with useless, mindnumbing screentime of one flavor or another until I become completely disgusted and unplug, like you did. Thank God I don’t have a smart phone!!! Well, except for all those helpful apps!!

    • Gopal Nandini:

      Thanks for reading and commenting. It’s always a huge relief what I hear that someone I know (and whom respect very much!) also struggles with their practice. Perhaps we all don’t do enough “confessing” with regard to our spiritual practice ups-and-downs. The screentime, I think in particular, is our (my) biggest weakness. The fact that you’ve shared yours (and what you do in response to it) inspires me and I’m sure others,too. Thank you.

      I’m beginning to think you may have the right idea re: no smart phone. I’m waiting for us all to return to the days of rotary dial phones that were too heavy to pick-up! 😉

      Grateful for you and your sharing,
      Dana

  2. Thanks so much for the insight that reveals struggles but reminds us of the answers. It’s amazing that when I take the time for meditation or time in God’s presence first my day will simply flow with such ease, but when I let that moment get pushed aside cause i feel I have missed the window of time to allow to myself, my day feels cluttered and unsuccessful at the end of it. This has happened more times then it should since it is I who is in the control seat of my time used. He gives us 24 hours a day to succeed whether we chose to spend time with or without him is again our free will of choice. I have found the first enemy I struggle with is the flesh. But I am willing to let the thoughts of self condemnation get squashed and grab any precious moment that arrives next as the time to regain my space with my Heavenly Father. Just knowing that he is listening and ready for us at any given moment to ask for his guidance is truly a gift of his Love.

    • Terry,

      YES! You’re right, those morning moments of silence, prayer, reading, and general quiet time really do shape the day. It’s amazing. Thanks for reading and commenting; your words help me remember that God is always present–and that we should grab those “precious moments” to “regain” our space with God.

      Hugs,
      Dana

  3. Kathleen Carpenter

    July 4, 2015 at 9:11 am

    Dana, This article is so perfect for me. I had a regular Centering Prayer practice and did regular spiritual reading. Since acquiring an iPad and smartphone, there has been less and less practice. Recently I have assessed where I am spending my time (too much of it on the above mentioned devices), I have assessed how much is of value (Ihave unsubscribed from several email sites, more have found me, so I delete first thing when I open my email and I only keep the ones that are important). Facebook? I am still working on that, but so far my determination is that not much of that is necessary to my life. I have resisted Twitter and Instagram. I started this morning on my front porch in silence absorbing nature and the beautiful plants in bloom. Thank you for my morning and life assessment. By the way, I loved your book Saffron Cross.. I admire what you and your us and are doing.

    • Kathleen:

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting–and thanks for reading Saffron Cross, too! I’m thrilled you connected with our story.

      I’m even more excited to know that this post resonated with you. It’s been my heart a long while, and I so appreciate you and others coming forward to describe similar challenges. For me, there’s something freeing (and reassuring) to know that I am not the only one who wrestles with my technology and the time it takes away from contemplation.

      Blessings on your continued silent mornings absorbing nature. May you have many more to come in this season of blooms.

      Thanks again,

      Dana

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