Thursday, July 9, 2009

Finding a Place

Finding a place to spend time alone is one of the first hurdles each person must move beyond in order to cultivate the private world. This can be more challenging than we might expect. Distractions, needs around us, responsibilities, and our own inconsistency, all tend to pull us toward the tumultuous daily life that surrounds us. The illusion is that if we just get our list of pressing things done, we can finally sit down and be quiet. But that almost never happens. Today's list will be replaced by another, and then another. As each task is completed, the empty space it left behind is quickly filled. Like water, the needs and demands of life flow in behind our work on filling them, like water pouring into a container. Life will always be this full.

The books I have read on the daily quiet time have not helped me solve this dilemma. Probably I can't help you solve it here. Honestly, I am not sure it is ever solved. I have come to the point where I view it as an ongoing challenge, a recurring theme. The tension between the things I must attend to and attending to the needs of my soul repeats itself in each season of my life and in every setting. The specific issues change, but the conflict remains. I compare it to gardening. As long as there are gardens, there will be weeds and a need to manage the weeds. There will be the need for watering and pruning. The maintenance-free garden is a great idea, but not a reality. At the same time, with disciplined, regular effort and experience, the gardener can make the management of these things easier and can make time to enjoy the garden.

The first thing to do, however, is
not to work harder and faster. It is to be quiet. Try different times of day. Try different settings. I have found that a variety of options gives me the ability to do this more consistently. I have plans for when my usual plan fails. I've had successful quiet times on gentle walks, in parks, in libraries, in coffee shops, in my car (not driving, though), in my bedroom, in my guest room, on the porch, and so forth. At first, I needed the surroundings to be really quiet, since every noise distracted me. Over time, I found that a low-noise atmosphere still worked pretty well, since none of the noises had anything to do with me. I was in a bubble, in my own private world. The journal helped me a good deal with this, too. It helped me focus my thoughts.

From my quiet times came new understanding and a sense of rest and peace that began to carry over into the other parts of my life. This didn't happen immediately, but it did happen. Before long, creative ideas about how to better manage my life appeared -- in my quiet time. This was the exact opposite of my expectations. In the beginning, I thought that getting organized and getting on top of all of my responsibilities would mean I would have time to be quiet and reflect. Instead, making time to be quiet and reflect gave me fresh ideas that helped me get organized and attend my responsibilities more efficiently and effectively. I found hours of extra time in my week, by making a few simple changes. This gave me more time to reflect, which in turn, gave me more ideas for managing all the aspects of my busy life.

Still, years after learning this simple principle, I can fall into the illusion that if I just get the next task done, then I will have time to be quiet. Whenever I am functioning this way, the quiet time rarely happens and when it does, it is short and tense. I need to relax. I need to give my soul room to wander and dream a little. I need to do it like I eat three meals a day, sleep at night, and brush my teeth. Then I will find that the pieces of my life, over time, are arranged properly.

This doesn't mean that my life will be perfect. I will not always look my best. My house will not be clean all the time. But things will generally be attended to at a level that is acceptable. And my soul will be satisfied, or at least moving toward satisfaction. To live deliberately from the center of my being, to do what matters, to be conscious of the long-term harvest of my work -- this is the goal. It is not a performance, done for an audience, to a particular standard. Rather, it is all about meaning and beauty and love and significance. These are the things we long for, this is the life we yearn to live. It is quite possible, regardless of our circumstances, but to find this life, we must first learn to be quiet with ourselves and our Lord.

So the first thing is the simple setting aside of a few minutes, in spite of and regardless of all the other demands on your time. Start with an amount of time that is comfortable for you, even if that is two minutes. Each week, add five more, until you can enjoy 30-45 minutes alone with your thoughts. That's the length of time most people need to really shed the cares of the day and think deeply. Take a notebook or journal with you. Ask God to help you and guide you. Record your impressions. I enjoy taking my Bible with me. During the hardest times of my life, I have read through the Psalms. Each day, I read one Psalm and copied a passage that appealed to me. Then I sat quietly with it for a few minutes. I recorded any feelings or thoughts that came to mind. I found I could always do this, regardless of how difficult my life was, how hard it was for me to concentrate. During the darkest and most challenging times, I have returned to this simple exercise as a starting point for healing.

Be on the lookout for times of day when this might suit your unique schedule, demands, and temperament. Early morning is a good choice for some people, but not for everyone and not for every time. You will need options for the days when your initial plan doesn't work. For example, today I am going to leave the house and go to a quiet place outside. This is one of my options and the best one right now, because I slept in and awoke with other members of my household. Some women find that they do much better, in general, if they leave the house for a few minutes. It helps to be physically removed from the place where they work and tend to their families.

Wherever you are, whatever you try, think of me as your companion. I am traveling the same path and encountering the same challenges. Let us seek the life of purpose and beauty, the way of love and meaning, together. I'd be delighted to hear from you about your own experiences in your private world. And I will continue to write to you from mine.

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