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The Spiritual Disciplines: Gratitude

Welcome back to our series on the spiritual disciplines, which explores exercises that can be used to train the soul. The purposes and practices of these disciplines are approached in such a way that they can be adapted across belief systems.

“[Gratitude] is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all the others.” –Cicero

Gratitude is arguably the spiritual discipline we think we understand best.

It’s been the most scientifically studied. It’s been the fodder for plenty of books and articles, presented as a feel-good tool for personal development and happiness, a method for achieving your best life now. It’s often trotted out around Thanksgiving as a seasonal interest, and then put away for another year.

As a result of this familiarity, gratitude lacks the mysterious allure of a discipline like solitude, or even the inner adventure-evoking asceticism of fasting.

But what if gratitude has been cheapened into something commonplace – what’s been called “gratitude lite” – that obscures its true nature?

What if gratitude was really a discipline rather than a feeling, a moral virtue rather a mood enhancer?

What if it was made not of the soft sentimentality of greeting cards, but the sterner stuff of Stoicism, the rawness of marrow sucking, the severity of even death itself?

In this final installment of our series on the spiritual disciplines, we’d like to introduce you to this forgotten side of gratitude. Read on – you’ll be thankful you did.

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The leading scientific expert on gratitude, Dr. Robert A. Emmons, defines gratitude as having two parts: “(1) affirming goodness in one’s life and (2) recognizing that the sources of this goodness lie at least partially outside the self.”

At this most basic, gratitude is something nearly everyone experiences (particularly in the first stage), and this experience can be practically involuntary. That is, most people will recognize and feel warmed by good things that happen in their lives, even without intentionally trying to do so.

Indeed, basic gratitude is more automatic and “feel-good” than the basic states of all the other practices we’ve talked about in this series. Even when you’re not studying or trying to get some alone time for spiritual purposes, or are only fasting for health reasons, these exercises still take a good deal of effort to initiate and often remain difficult and uncomfortable throughout. On the other hand, everyone experiences tinges of gratitude without really thinking about it, and enjoys the squeeze of uplift it lends the heart.

Yet, when elevated and practiced as a spiritual discipline, gratitude can in fact be just as strenuous and demanding as the others we’ve discussed.

While basic gratitude is passively evoked by external events, of the exclusively positive variety, the spiritual discipline of gratitude is intentionally chosen, deliberately trained, and exercised in all circumstances. It is not dependent on changing conditions, but on mindset. It is not waited for, but pursued.

While basic gratitude is a set of fleeting and fluctuating feelings, the spiritual discipline of gratitude is an action. It is not just experienced, but expressed. The spiritual discipline of gratitude is practiced not just because it feels good, but because it’s the right thing to do — not just for one’s own good, but for the good of one’s family, community, and society. The discipline of gratitude is in fact not a feeling at all, but a moral virtue.

In short, the spiritual discipline of gratitude leaves behind the realm of simple emotion and instead becomes an attitude, a stance, a way. One that necessitates great effort to develop and maintain – the offering of a sacrifice of thanksgiving on the altar of life.

What Is the Purpose of the Spiritual Discipline of Gratitude?

“Epicurus says, ‘gratitude is a virtue that commonly has profit annexed to it.’ And where is the virtue that has not? But still the virtue is to be valued for itself, and not for the profit that attends it.” –Seneca

The practice of gratitude begets myriad number of very practical, tangible benefits to body and mind. Research has shown that practicing gratitude boosts the immune system, bolsters resilience to stress, lowers depression, increases feelings of energy, determination, and strength, and even helps you sleep better at night. In fact, few things have been more repeatedly and empirically vetted than the connection between gratitude and overall happiness and well-being.

As with fasting, it’s impossible to untangle the mental and physical benefits of gratitude from its spiritual effects; what is good for the body and mind, is good for the soul, and vice versa. At the same time, the reasons to intentionally practice the spiritual discipline of gratitude radiate beyond these more corporeal effects, to those that more centrally touch one’s inner life, moral character, and even the larger community.

Opens Your Eyes

“One of the most important—and most neglected—elements in the beginnings of the interior life is the ability to respond to reality, to see the value and the beauty in ordinary things, to come alive to the splendor that is all around us.” –Thomas Merton

A primary purpose of all spiritual practices is to gain a fresh perspective on life — to discover new dimensions that can’t be accessed when one’s mind is consumed by material distractions and simple busyness.

In this, gratitude serves as a singularly effective portal.

Becoming more grateful does not involve a denial of the reality of life’s hard edges and sharp sorrows. Rather, while gratitude recognizes the dark corners of existence which readily attract our attention, it also notices all the Beauty, Joy, Goodness, and Truth that is typically overlooked. In this, gratitude in fact opens one’s eyes to a more expansive view of reality. It is like putting on a pair of long-needed glasses for the first time: “Oh, wow, here’s what I’ve been missing.” Through the lens of gratitude, you come to better recognize the good, to see the many gifts, benefits, and mercies that are present in your life that might otherwise remain hidden and ignored.

The discipline of gratitude is one which seeks for greater mindfulness and awareness, that calls you to be more present in the moment, to sharpen your powers of observation, to notice what others miss, and thus to discover more layers in “ordinary” life. It is an invitation to not only gnaw on the bone of existence, but to suck out its marrow. It is a gateway to greater wonder, awe, and magic, and to living life more fully alive.

Develops Character and the Virtuous Life

“He who receives a benefit with gratitude repays the first installment on his debt.” –Seneca

“a humble mind is the soil out of which thanks naturally grow.” –Henry Ward Beecher

Gratitude is arguably the foundation of good character, or as Cicero puts it, gratitude is the “parent” of all the other virtues. Conversely, ingratitude is the root of all vice; St. Ignatius called ingratitude the “most abominable of sins” as it is “the cause, the beginning and origin of all sins and misfortunes.”

Why do the two sides of thankfulness function as the respective fonts of both good and evil?

First, because the presence of gratitude counteracts the negative vices — envy, resentment, and greed — that its absence begets. When you are grateful for what you have, you spend less time comparing yourself to others, and less time making poor, fruitless decisions based on those comparisons.

Second, recognizing that the good in one’s life comes at least partially from outside the self develops a vital sense of humility, as well as the motivation to reciprocate these gifts and return goodness for goodness by practicing the positive virtues. Striving to do the right thing out of simple duty can be laudable, but duty is at best a mere back-up motivation to a superior and more spontaneous source: joy and thankfulness. You can grind out living the virtues, but such service will feel dry and unsatisfying to you, and dry, if not embittered, to others. Gratitude is the grease in the gears of well-doing; a fuel that sparks and animates one’s courage, generosity, industry, and honor.

Puts Us in Right Relationship With Others

Gratitude turns our gaze outward instead of inward, helping us recognize realities outside ourselves. We recognize that we are not completely self-sufficient and independent and instead exist in a web of interconnected relationships. We recognize the help (human and divine) that’s gotten us to where we are today, and the help we continue to rely on to sustain our lives. In this, gratitude allows us to appreciate and affirm the worth and value of the people, structures, and supernatural powers around us rather than taking them for granted.

Conversely, it’s worth pointing out again that the flip side is equally true; ingratitude leads to bitterness, envy, and negativity – vices that absolutely destroy our bonds with others.

Unsurprisingly then, research has found that gratitude has a huge effect on improving relationships. Studies show that grateful people experience greater feelings of connection and closeness with others and with God, and are more compassionate, forgiving, generous, and supportive than the ungrateful.

While researching her book on gratitude, Dr. Brent Atkinson, a professor of marriage and family therapy, told Janice Kaplan that “When people share positive emotions [like gratitude] with each other, scans show their brains sync up and show similar activity. You increase your natural capacity for love.” Sounds kind of groovy, but again, gratitude acts as the grease in the gears of goodness, so that serving each other becomes more natural and spontaneous and less of a grind. Studies show that when you thank someone for doing something for you, they’re more likely to help you again; rather than cajoling and demanding friends, loved ones, and co-workers do what you want, thankfulness makes the things you appreciate naturally keep happening. That’s good for you, obviously, but also good for your relationships.

Leads to Service and a Chain of Goodness

As already stated, when you realize what you’ve been given, you’re motivated to give back: the more you recognize what others have done for you, the more you want to do for them; the more you appreciate the world, the more you want to make it better. But the virtuous effect of gratitude ripples out further still.

Research shows that when you thank someone for what they’ve done for you, they not only are more likely to help you again, they are more likely to help other people, period. Cultivating and then expressing gratitude thus starts a web of virtue; it spreads goodness like a very positive contagion that can literally transform families, workplaces, communities, and the world at large. That’s an idea based not on a woo-woo hippie platitude, but a concrete, empirically proven effect.

The potential of “paying it forward” is real, and it starts with a simple “Thank you.”

 

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“Gratitude is a virtue most deified and yet most deserted: it is the ornament of rhetoric and the libel of practical life.” –J.W Forney

Given the very real benefits and positive effects of practicing gratitude both generally and as a spiritual discipline, why do we so often struggle to develop and express this virtue? To wit: in a survey done by Kaplan, she found that while “more than 90% of people think gratitude makes you happier and gives you a more fulfilled life . . . less than half regularly express gratitude.” What then accounts for this gap between what we know is good for us (and the world), and how we actually behave?

There are several obstacles to getting in a gratitude-driven mindset; while they can perhaps be inferred from the purposes outlined above, it’s instructive to call them out for more explicit examination.

The first obstacle to greater gratitude is simple busyness and distraction. We may feel a sense of thankfulness for someone or something, but it quickly evaporates as our phone pings, our kid cries, or another thought simply intrudes on the moment. We may feel the impulse to say thank you, but it gets buried under a bunch of other to-dos.

The second obstacle to gratitude is an ingrained penchant for noticing the negative over the positive. This phenomenon is likely the result of an evolutionary adaption; in primitive times, people had to pay attention to any potential threats in the environment in order to survive. In modern times, it means that if ten things go very right in your day, but one thing goes wrong, you’ll forget all the positive stuff and spend all your time ruminating on it.

A third obstacle is the phenomenon of adaptation. While novel pleasures give us a rush of satisfaction and gratitude, we soon become habituated to them. After a while, your once new love/car/home/job stops making your heart spontaneously swell with thankfulness; you stop registering all the ways the things already in your life add to it, and stop noticing all the qualities you admire and cherish in your family and friends.  

The fourth obstacle is envy. It’s hard to be happy with what you have, when it seems like other people have better things. Envy destroys gratitude, and it’s harder than ever to avoid when everyone can show off the highlight reel of their lives on social media.

While all these obstacles can be significant stumbling blocks to the discipline of gratitude, if this virtue is predicated on humility, then the very biggest barrier to its practice should be obvious: pride.

Such pride is rooted in the inability to admit dependency on anything or anyone. To do so hurts, well, our pride. Even the word “dependency” itself makes us viscerally cringe, while our hearts swell to words like “autonomy,” “independence,” and “self-reliance.” And indeed, these are all good things that should be striven for . . . to the extent possible. But self-sufficiency has its limits. You didn’t create yourself or raise yourself, you didn’t pave the roads you drive on, grow the food you eat, or make the clothes you wear, and, even if you’re the most extreme of introverts, you’d probably go crazy if forced to live forever alone. Even the world’s last true hermit had to steal from other people to live. The truth is, we all rely on others to meet our physical and emotional needs.

Humans are interdependent; sometimes we give and sometimes we receive. You can’t desire to fully know yourself and yet concentrate on one role to the exclusion of the other; a man should strive to be autonomous . . . and a frank realist. Being less grateful doesn’t make you less dependent, it just makes you more delusional — while robbing you of the benefits gratitude brings.

Of the different “flavors” the pride that blocks gratitude takes, a sense of entitlement is undeniably the most significant. This sense of entitlement says: “Whatever I’ve got, I’ve earned. I deserve this. I had it coming.”

Just as we’d all like to believe we’re 100% self-sufficient, we’d all like to think we got where we are today entirely on our own steam — that we earned everything we have by ourselves. Yet we didn’t earn the technology and myriad inventions we use on a day-to-day basis, didn’t earn the democracy we live under, didn’t earn a shot at existence in the first place.

While we assuredly should take a healthy satisfaction in the things we have largely earned on our own, we should also recognize that the very possibility of achieving those things at all was foundationally premised on a whole lot of factors outside ourselves and our control.

The fact that your life exists at all is because your ancestors sailed over here from the Old World, and started farms, and ranches, and businesses, and fought in the Big One, and worked, and raised families, and kept themselves alive so you could take a breath in the 21st century. We all stand upon an edifice built by those who came before.

So much of what we have was placed in our laps by sheer dint of happening to be born in a certain time and place. So much of what we have is due to simple luck and serendipity. We didn’t, couldn’t, do anything to deserve it.  

Research shows that surprise is a key ingredient in experiencing gratitude, and you can’t be surprised, if you perennially expect, nigh near demand, good things to happen to you. This accounts for the fact that while our standard of living is higher than ever, we are seemingly more discontented and depressed; our expectations have simply risen in line with our conveniences. We have more, but feel entitled to a life that’s even better still, and thus see more negative than positive in the world and complain more than we appreciate. 

Expectations aren’t bad in and of themselves (if you keep them modest and reasonable). It’s not wrong to expect that a spouse or a friend treat you in a certain way; by virtue of the fact you have a mutually invested-in relationship, you rightly should expect certain things from each other. Nor is it wrong to expect that when you pay for a good or service, you will receive something commensurate in exchange. But having these expectations, doesn’t mean you’re entitled to their fulfillment, nor does it preclude you from being tickled with delight when they’re gratified.

Certainly, one is under no obligation to say thank you for acts and services that fall below what would normally be expected. But even when an expectation is fulfilled in a basic, average way – even when it does not go above and beyond — we ought to still feel gratitude for the act, and in fact, experience it as a gift.

Let’s say you and your wife share household chores, and you each do an equal number of tasks. Must you still thank her for making dinner, even though it happens routinely every night, and is just part of the responsibilities of running a household you both mutually agreed to take on? The answer is yes: the virtue of gratitude obliges you to do so.

No matter how routine and expected her effort is, it’s still a gift: not only could your wife have potentially thrown out the idea of pitching in as soon as you got hitched, she receives no direct reward in return for her service. You may have previously done the same number of chores and offered ample emotional/financial support, but there are simply no direct exchanges, no strict tit-for-tat in relationships; e.g., is mowing the lawn exactly equal to making X number of meals? Every effort made in a marriage is a gift to one’s partner that cannot be precisely enumerated nor reciprocated.

Further, the dinner is a gift in that it is made with the hands of a woman who you don’t wholly deserve. Sure, you wooed her, won her love, continue to treat her right. But you had nothing to do with the forces that brought a boy from Tallahassee and a girl from Oakland to go to the same college, to take the same English class, to sit in the same row. You didn’t create her. She is a reality to which you are not entirely entitled. Not to mention that even since you two were married, she could have died in a tragic accident or been laid low by a terrible disease. And yet here she is in the kitchen, chopping carrots.

When you say, “Thank you for dinner,” the simple phrase encapsulates all those meanings and dimensions of gratitude — all the ways your wife’s act can simultaneously be routinely expected and a wondrous, surprising, unearned gift.

The same dynamic runs through every relationship and exchange, no matter how shallow or financially premised. When the check-out guy at the grocery store swipes and bags your groceries with even an average level of efficacy and friendliness, you say “Thanks”: “Thanks for not confronting me with dead-eyed rudeness when you could have; thanks for not working at a snail’s pace; thanks for doing your job up to standard when so many don’t. Thanks to our ancestors who cleared this land, and set up general stores, that became giant stores where you work and I shop, and where I can get Pumpkin Spice Oreos, and run them down this little conveyer belt, and pay with this handy chip reader machine. Thanks to the forces of the universe that brought us together in this moment for this small exchange in which we both get something we need. Thanks for giving up your time, and perhaps even a bit of your soul, to work this job that helps make the world go round.”

Once you start practicing the spiritual discipline of gratitude, you come to see that while you can expect things of people with whom you enter into a relationship or exchange, you’re never wholly entitled to the material and emotional goods they produce; each interaction represents an opportunity that you can never entirely earn or deserve.

Once you realize life doesn’t owe you anything, everything in it becomes a gift.

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For some people, added to the universal obstacles to greater gratitude outlined above, is yet another set: it seems that a grateful disposition is partly genetic, that some people are just naturally more or less thankful than others. At the same time, how you were raised plays a role as well; if you were reared by one or more parents who are complaint-centric, glass-half-empty types, that’ll dampen your own orientation towards gratitude as well.

That there are many obstacles both universal and particular pitted against practicing gratitude is the bad news. The good news, fortunately, is that despite these barriers, anyone can intentionally cultivate gratitude as a spiritual discipline. Even if you’re someone who doesn’t often feel spontaneously thankful, it’s an ability that can be trained; you can deliberately become, as Emmons puts it, “good at gratitude.”

The exercises below are broken into ways to experience more gratitude yourself, and ways to express more gratitude to others, and both sets can help you overcome the common obstacles to practicing this virtue. The exercises are both research-backed and age-old; practices first recommended by philosophers thousands of years ago, and refined for maximum efficacy in the modern day. By regularly training your gratitude “muscle” with them, you can make gratitude a matter of steady discipline rather than fluctuating mood and changing circumstances.

As you embark on this gratitude training program, here’s another bit of good news: while becoming more grateful takes significant intentional effort at first, over time it will become easier; what begins as consciously chosen behavior will eventually become an ingrained attitude — your default response to the world. A wonderfully positive cycle will in fact develop: the more good in your life you recognize to be thankful for, the more your mood, health, work, and relationships will change for the better, and the more good things will happen to you to be thankful for!

How to Experience Greater Gratitude

“There is no neutrality between gratitude and ingratitude. Those who are not grateful soon begin to complain of everything. Those who do not love, hate. In the spiritual life there is no such thing as an indifference to love or hate. That is why tepidity (which seems to be indifferent) is so detestable. It is hate disguised as love.” –Thomas Merton

“In noble hearts the feeling of gratitude has all the ardor of a passion.” –Achilles Poincelot

“Gratitude is the memory of the heart.” –French proverb

A grateful heart is the epicenter of virtue, and you can keep its fire stoked by engaging in practices that enhance your powers of awareness and observation – your ability to see the same old things in a fresh way, and to recognize the abundance you have, rather than always focusing on what you lack.

A thread that runs through all of these practices is memory. Ingratitude is a matter of forgetfulness – we forget what others have done for us days, weeks, years, and centuries ago; we forget the moment of joy we experienced just one minute back; we forget all the good we have in our lives, and how we’re not entitled to it. We forget that memory is moral.

“Do you want to be a grateful person?” Emmons thus asks, “Then remember to remember.”

Savor the Good

“Happiness does not consist in things themselves but in the relish we have of them.” –Francois de La Rochefoucauld

Psychologist Rick Hanson compares humanity’s universal penchant for concentrating on the negative over the positive (which can be even more acute for those born with gloomy genes) to Velcro and Teflon: the bad sticks with us, while the good just glides right on by our consciousness. But if we can’t fully recognize and appreciate the good in our lives, we can’t be fully grateful for it.

To keep the good things that happen in your day-to-day life from slipping through your mind, you’ve got to put a kind of net in place to catch them. You do that by intentionally savoring and relishing positive moments. When something good happens to you, whether big or small – a hug from your child, a tasty meal, a beautiful sunset – instead of letting it quickly flit in and out of your awareness, take ten seconds or so to really soak in the pleasure/beauty/joy of it.

As you let the good penetrate more deeply, your feelings of gratitude will increase, and your brain will literally be rewired – creating sticky grooves that latch on to the positive things that are happening to you every single day.

Reframe

“You cannot control what happens to you in life, but you can always control what you will feel and do about what happens to you.” –Viktor Frankl

“Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the views they take of them.” –Epictetus

Another way to deal with our natural focus on the negative is to try to examine a less-than-ideal situation from another perspective — to reframe it in a better light.

Reframing doesn’t mean completely ignoring the downsides of situations or being naively Pollyanna-ish in looking for silver linings that don’t exist; it doesn’t require a denial of reality. Instead, it’s an acknowledgement that reality is, in fact, somewhat subjective. Things really do objectively happen, but the meaning of those things is open to interpretation, and this interpretation changes how you experience them, which changes your reality.

You can be devastated when you’re laid off from work, or grateful for the chance at a fresh start in your career. You can be bitter that your girlfriend cheated on you, or grateful you don’t have to waste any more time believing she’s someone she’s not. You can be frustrated that your flight was canceled, or grateful you get to spend one more day with old friends. You can be annoyed to be attending a boring meeting, or grateful for the chance to recalibrate your attention span and let your mind wander.

Either side of these coins is just as “real” as the other. Which side you choose to focus on is up to you. You can concentrate on what’s gone wrong, or put your attention on what’s still right. You can see only the obstacle, or look for how the obstacle is in fact the way.

Even in times of acute hardship, while it is unlikely that you will feel grateful for the suffering, you can still feel grateful in the suffering. That is, you can still find small mercies and points of light even in your darkest hour. If you’re going to be walking through hell anyway, why do it without gratitude, and make the trial even harder than it has to be?

Later, from the distant vantage point provided by the passage of time, you may in fact grow to become grateful for the suffering; for the way it refined you, or changed the path of your life, or brought you to closer to friends. Research shows that writing about a hard experience from the frame of gratefulness can in fact help you see the good that came from it, and find a greater sense of meaning, hope, and purpose in past pain.

Gratitude ultimately depends not on circumstances you can’t control, but on the perspective and attitude you decide to take; you can’t always choose what happens to you, but you can always choose how to respond. 

Keep a Gratitude Journal

“If one should give me a dish of sand, and tell me there were particles of iron in it, I might look for them with my clumsy fingers, and be unable to detect them; but let me take a magnet and sweep through it, and how would it draw to itself the almost invisible particles by the mere power of attraction.—The unthankful heart, like my finger in the sand, discovers no mercies; but let the thankful heart sweep through the day, and as the magnet finds the iron, so it will find, in every hour, some heavenly blessings.” –Henry Ward Beecher 

Keeping a gratitude journal is the most famous of gratitude practices, and with good reason. It’s very simple, and it’s highly effective. It’s been shown to produce the benefits to body and mind mentioned above, and all you’ve got to do is regularly write down a few things for which you’re thankful.  

There are several ways to especially enhance the efficacy and meaningfulness of this practice:

Write in the journal just twice a week, instead of every day. While you might think that the more often you wrote in a gratitude journal, the better the effect would be, research has shown the practice actually has a point of diminishing returns. Journaling just twice a week can in fact be more effective than doing it every day. Why? Because making daily entries seems to induce what Emmons calls “gratitude fatigue” — it becomes too routine, and thus doesn’t elicit as stimulating a response.

Good news for us: who doesn’t have time to write in a journal just twice a week?

Be as specific and detailed as possible. Gratitude journaling works because writing down the amorphous thoughts that flit through your mind makes them more concrete and real. It naturally follows then, that the more detailed you make your entries, the more this effect is amplified. So instead of writing, “I’m grateful for 1) my wife, 2) my kids, 3) dinner tonight,” write “I’m grateful for the way my wife’s eyes twinkle when she laughs, 2) the softness of my daughter’s cheek when I give her a kiss goodnight, 3) tonight’s burger — the juiciness and savoriness of the meat, the crispness of the lettuce, and the tang of the sauce.” Really relive the things you’re thankful for in your imagination; the more you bring them to life, the deeper your visceral reaction will be, and the more profoundly you’ll experience gratitude. 

Think not just of big and obvious things, but small and surprising things. Sticking just to big/obvious things – family/job/house/health – will quickly induce gratitude fatigue and make it hard to keep your entries as fresh as possible (while it’s fine to duplicate things, the more diversity you can being to your entries, the better).

So think about anything and everything that brings you pleasure, adds something to your life in even the smallest of ways, and ought not to be taken for granted: technology (the internet, your phone, capabilities like FaceTime, apps like Uber); food (the existence of Oreos, that you can get strawberries in the middle of winter, that there are restaurants serving the native cuisine of 30 different countries in your city); modern conveniences/aids/tools (bars of soap, contacts, barbells); anything that tickles your senses (the smell after rain, the softness of your sheets, the sound of your favorite music).

“Don’t only journal about people who helped you but also about those who have helped people whom you love.” This is a great piece of advice from Emmons, who notes that “We may overlook these sources of gratitude.” Be grateful for your child’s teacher, the nurse who tends your ailing parent, your girlfriend’s ever loyal and loving stepdad.

“Get started wherever you are.” Another recommendation from Emmons, who says you can still begin a gratitude journal even if you’re in a negative place in life, and “even if the only item on your list is ‘nothing bad happened today.’”

Harness the George Bailey Effect

“It is not happiness that makes us grateful. It’s gratefulness that makes us happy.” –Brother David Steindl-Rast, Benedictine monk

Even though the power of gratitude journals has gotten a lot of attention, they don’t in fact work for everyone. Part of the problem is that even when you recognize and record the good things in your life, you’ve probably gotten used to these “everyday” things, so that the act fails to evoke the element of uncertainty and surprise so central to experiencing gratitude on a deeper, more emotionally transformative level.

To inject a little more “surprise” into your gratitude journal, try harnessing your inner George Bailey. In It’s a Wonderful Life, Bailey has to experience a world in which he’d never been born to really understand how rich and blessed his life really was. You can benefit from similarly conjuring up an alternative universe, no guardian angel required: rather than writing about something you’re thankful for, write how that thing might not have happened. How might you and your wife have never met? How might you have never landed the great job you’re currently in? What would your life be like if you and your best friend had never crossed paths?

Research shows that this exercise, by challenging your secure, complacent sense that something good in your life was always bound to happen, heightens your feeling of gratitude beyond simply writing about that blessing. When you reflect on how something might never have occurred after all, you stop taking it for granted, and your once-dulled sense of thankfulness returns. 

Practice the Examen

We discussed the Examen – a daily five-part prayer developed by St. Ignatius Loyola — in our exploration of the spiritual discipline of self-examination. But it’s also a practice that can provide tremendous support to the discipline of gratitude, as the first step of the prayer is to reflect on things that happened that day for which you are grateful, and to then express thanks for them.

Fast

If gratitude is sabotaged by the fact that we adapt to the good things that are consistently in our lives so that they become yawn-inducingly routine, then a natural way to counteract this effect is to temporarily remove that good thing, i.e., to fast from it.

Spend a day without eating food, or using technology, and you’ll be less likely to take these benefits for granted. The scales of “blessing blindness” fall away from your eyes, and you realize how fortunate you are to have a full fridge, and how downright magical your phone really is.

Scarcity sharpens gratitude, and in a time in which we are glutted with every pleasure and convenience, sometimes we must create this scarcity ourselves.

Memento Mori

“What man can you show me who places any value on his time, who reckons the worth of each day, who understands that he is dying daily?” –Seneca

Research shows that when people are reminded that an experience will soon come to an end, they feel more grateful for the time they have left, and take more action to make the most of it.

When it comes to situations that have a definite expiration date – college, vacations, deployments – reminding yourself that they won’t last can spur you to engage the experience more fully – to stay present and really savor, and feel thankful for, each moment you have left. For example, Kate and I will often say to each other in regards to our kids: “They’ll never be as young/small as they are right now.” It’s a reminder that they’re in a special phase of life that will pass away sooner than we can fathom – that though they may drive us crazy sometimes, one day their tiny footfalls will disappear and leave our house empty and quiet. It helps us savor and cherish our truly precious time with them.

While this technique works when applied to specific “limited-time” situations, it can also be applied to life in general, which, though its expiration date is uncertain, will definitely come to an end one day. That end could be fifty years from now, or it could be tomorrow. The practice of memento mori – of remembering that you will die, of reflecting, as Marcus Aurelius did, that “You could leave life right now” – can make you more grateful for each additional day, and moment, you get.

How to Express Greater Gratitude

“Gratitude is a duty none can be excused from, because it is always at our own disposal.” –Pierre Charron

Engaging in practices like journaling and reflection is great. But gratitude isn’t primarily an individual exercise, but a relational one. It’s not just a private feeling, but a public action. Thus, at the heart of gratitude is not the experience of thankfulness, but its expression; once we’ve cultivated gratitude in our hearts, we must share it with others.

Outwardly acknowledging the gifts we receive checks our pride, humbles our souls, and forges a link that will expand beyond ourselves to become an ever-widening chain of service and virtue.

Say Thank You to Just About Everyone, for Just About Everything 

“You sanctify whatever you are grateful for.” –Anthony de Mello           

Expressing gratitude is as simple as saying “Thank you.”

Even though those two words are so easy to say, most people don’t express them often enough. In Kaplan’s survey on gratitude, for example, she found that in the workplace, only “7 percent of people regularly said thanks to their bosses and 10 percent to colleagues.” We get in that mode where we don’t feel like we should be grateful for people just doing what’s expected of them – just doing their job. We forget that life doesn’t ultimately owe us anything, that nothing is guaranteed, that we’re not wholly entitled to the good things we get. We forget that everything is a gift.

But it is.

So say thank you to everyone, for just about everything. Not just when someone went above and beyond, but when someone simply did what they were “supposed” to – heaven knows that even when something “should” happen a certain way it often doesn’t! Be grateful to anyone who holds up even the basic end of the bargain, who doesn’t follow the path of least resistance. Be grateful that someone was willing to meet your needs, just as they are hopefully grateful for the opportunity to meet those needs.

If it isn’t already, start making a simple “thank you” a frequent, fundamental part of your daily language. Thank your wife, cashier, doctor, pharmacist, car mechanic, mailman, waiter — everyone who makes an effort on your behalf. Don’t forget to thank the people who serve those you love, too.

And while you’re at it, thank the pilot and flight attendants when you get off the plane. No matter how routine aerial flight has become, there’s nothing truly routine about shepherding a hunk of metal through the sky and bringing it safely down to earth. It’s really a stunning, gratifying accomplishment.

There are lots of wondrous gifts like that “hidden” in ordinary life. Let “thank you” serve as a magical incantation that materializes their reality right before your eyes.

Write Thank You Notes Early and Often

“He who acknowledges a kindness has it still, and he who has a grateful sense of it has requited it.” –Cicero

Saying thank you is a worthy gesture, but sometimes when someone does go above and beyond for you (and when you have modest, humble expectations, this happens quite a lot!), a verbal acknowledgment of your gratitude is simply not enough. You ought to put your gratitude in writing.

Penning thank you notes enhances the power of gratitude for both the writer and the recipient; the former benefits from the effect of putting nebulous thoughts to paper, while the latter enjoys a gesture of appreciation, which, because it requires more effort than an oral “Thanks!”, carries more meaning. Indeed, thank you notes are incredibly impactful, because they are so relatively rare.

A quarter-century ago, a middle-aged pastor and writer named William Stidger was reflecting on his gratitude for a teacher he had in his youth who’d introduced him to great literature and sparked a love for the written word that had helped prepare him for his future vocations. Realizing he had never thanked her for the way she had touched his life, he decided to “atone” for this omission, and that very night penned her a handwritten letter of thanks.

Just a few days later, he received a reply; written in shaky scrawl, it read:

“My Dear Willie,

I am now an old lady in my 80’s, living alone in a small room, cooking my own meals, lonely and seemingly like the last leaf of fall left behind. You will be interested to know, Willie, that I taught school for 50 years and, in all that time, yours is the first note of appreciation I ever received. It came on a blue, cold morning, and it cheered my lonely old heart as nothing has cheered me in many years.”

Thank you notes ought to be written whenever someone does something that especially warms your heart. They can be penned to recognize kindnesses both big and small. They can be written in response to someone’s specific, significant act, or upon reaching a realization of how an accumulation of their little gestures has influenced your life for good. Write them to your family members and friends, to both supervisors and subordinates, to service people who will be surprised you even recognize their work. Write them to people you know well, and to strangers – authors, musicians, athletes, politicians, pastors – who you don’t know personally, but have impacted your life. Write them to anyone and everyone who has ever made your life easier, safer, healthier, more interesting, more joyful.

So too, write thank you notes not only in the form of an immediate response to a service or gift, but as a follow-up months or years later; e.g., “I was thinking today of how amazing our trip was last summer, and wanted to thank you again for showing me such a good time.” “Three years after you gave me that piece of advice, I want you to know the impact it’s continued to have on my life.”

Remember to remember.

Serve

“The service we render to others is really the rent we pay for our room on this earth. It is obvious that man is himself a traveler; that the purpose of this world is not ‘to have and to hold’ but ‘to give and serve.’ There can be no other meaning.” –Sir Wilfred Grenfell

“We can be thankful to a friend for a few acres or a little money; and yet for the freedom and command of the whole earth, and for the great benefits of our being, our life, health, and reason, we look upon ourselves as under no obligation.” –Seneca

One of the greatest ways to express gratitude is to not just thank others for what they’ve given to you, but to try to pay it forward by striving to give back to the world. Service is in fact a spiritual discipline in and of itself, and springs from the conviction that in light of all you’ve been blessed with, how else could you respond? You’ve taken from the pot of the universe, and thus feel moved to put something back in.

Service is the attempt to meet the physical, emotional, relational, and/or financial needs of others. Or as Adele A. Calhoun puts it: “Service is a way of offering resources, time, treasure, influence, and expertise for the care, protection, justice, and nurture of others.”

Service can take bigger and more structured forms: volunteering to be a Big Brother, or to staff a soup kitchen, or to build houses, but it’s also needed in smaller, more sporadic doses: providing someone with rides to church or doctors’ appointments, cleaning up an elderly woman’s yard, shoveling snow for a disabled neighbor, fixing someone’s faucet.

Service can take more obvious forms, as well as manifest in acts we may not think of as acts of service, but decidedly are. In Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster lists several examples in this vein:

“Guarding the reputation of others is a deep and lasting service.”

“There is the service of being served.”

“There is the service of common courtesy.”

“There is the service of hospitality.”

“There is the service of listening.”

To find the service you were called to do, seek to match your personal gifts with the world’s needs; in fact, you can best show gratitude for the gifts you’ve been bestowed, by using them not only to benefit your own life but the lives of others. Everyone’s talents are needed in some way; as Paul says in the New Testament, communities are like physical bodies, and each part has a role to play. If you have a more “showy” gift for, say, singing, or teaching, or speaking, that’s great. But if you’re adept as administration, or budgeting, or organizing — at working behind the scenes — your service is just as valuable. Everyone has an important personal ministry to fulfill.

If you’re not sure what that ministry is, just jump in anywhere and experiment with offering your help in different areas. As Donald S. Whitney notes, “the best way to discover and confirm which spiritual gift is yours is through serving.”

Keep in mind that even when your service is aligned with your gifts, it won’t always be easy and will quite often be difficult. It’s called a discipline for a reason.

Ironically enough, one of the hardest parts of engaging in gratitude-driven service, is not feeling appreciated for your efforts! Even though you may seek to lead a life of thankfulness, doesn’t mean that everyone will return the favor. The ego naturally cries out against laboring in the absence of affirmation, recognition, status. You have to have the courage to face ingratitude, and to serve not for any credit, but simply because it’s the right thing to do. As Seneca says, “It is another’s fault if he be ungrateful, but it is mine if I do not give.”

One way to stay motivated to perform unheralded acts of service is to remember that, as Foster observes, your act isn’t “only for the sake of the person served”:

“Hidden, anonymous ministries affect even people who know nothing of them. They sense a deeper love and compassion among people though they cannot account for the feeling. If a secret service is done on their behalf, they are inspired to deeper devotion, for they know that the well of service is far deeper than they can see. It is a ministry that can be engaged in frequently by all people. It sends ripples of joy and celebration through any community of people.”

Service is also difficult because it can be so dull, so lowly; it insults our sense of ourselves as made for only interesting, important work. As Foster observes:

“In some ways we would prefer to hear Jesus’ call to deny father and mother, houses and land for the sake of the gospel than his word to wash feet. Radical self-denial gives the feel of adventure. . . . But in service we must experience the many little deaths of going beyond ourselves. Service banishes us to the mundane, the ordinary, the trivial.”

Despite these obstacles to living the spiritual discipline of service, its pursuit is incredibly worthwhile. While the other disciplines can turn our gaze inward, service defeats our “morbid self-consciousness,” and moves us to look beyond ourselves. Nothing else “matures” the soul in the same way. As Foster argues:

“Of all the classical Spiritual Disciplines, service is the most conducive to the growth of humility. When we set out on a consciously chosen course of action that accents the good of others and is, for the most part, a hidden work, a deep change occurs in our spirits.”

In losing your life in the service of others, you truly do find it.

 

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“It is precisely in times of immunity from care that the soul should toughen itself beforehand for occasions of greater stress and it is while Fortune is kind that it should fortify itself against her violence. In days of peace the solider performs maneuvers, throws up earthworks with no enemy in sight, and wearies himself by gratuitous toil, in order that he may be equal to unavoidable toil. If you would not have a man flinch when the crisis comes, train him before it comes.” –Seneca

“It is only since the eighteenth-century Enlightenment that the Christian West made ‘belief’—the acceptance of certain creedal propositions—‘the first postulate’ of religious life. In the West, we have developed a culture that is rational, scientific, and pragmatic; we feel obliged to satisfy ourselves that a proposition is true before we base our lives upon it, and to establish a principle to our satisfaction before we apply it. In the premodern period, however, in all the major world faiths, the main emphasis was not on belief but on behavior. First, you changed your lifestyle and only then could you experience God, Nirvana, Brahman, or the Dao as a living reality.” –Patrick Leigh Fermor

We began this series by exploring the way that training the soul is very similar to training the body. Just like the physical body, spiritual muscles will atrophy if they aren’t regularly, purposely exercised, and such exercise requires effort, pain, discipline. Just like building physical strength improves your day-to-day life, while also preparing you for emergencies, developing spiritual strength expands the possibilities of ordinary existence, while also ensuring you’re ready to grapple with serious moral issues and temptations.

Just like physical training too, with its libraries of different exercises, and the commitment required to perform them, you may be intimidated by the idea of starting a spiritual training program. We’ve covered eight disciplines in this series, and that’s only a portion of all those that exist. Even just incorporating these eight alone into your daily life may seem like a daunting prospect.

But there’s plenty of good news on this score to put your mind at ease.

First, several disciplines act as a “containers” for others, and several can be done at the same time. For example, while you experience a space of solitude and silence, you can also be fasting, and you can use the time to study or practice self-examination (which includes gratitude) as well; in other words, in only 10-20 minutes a day, you can legitimately practice 4 or 5 spiritual disciplines at the same time. The disciplines can also often be practiced without changing your schedule at all; turn off your car stereo, and your commute to work becomes a time of solitude and silence, in which you can reflect on what you’re grateful for, or work your way through the examen. Training the soul is as simple and accessible as utilizing the many possibilities in spare moments.  

Keep in mind as well, that disciplines like gratitude and simplicity do not always need to be trained in specially set-aside sessions, but rather can be exercised in the small decisions you make throughout the day.

Additionally, while each spiritual discipline should be included in your life in some form, they don’t all have to be given the same time and attention. There are likely some that come more naturally to you, and some that are more of a struggle and which need more work. Maybe you’re a naturally grateful person, who loves to serve others, but you struggle with making time to be alone. Maybe you’re diligent about studying the scriptures, but never turn that lens on yourself. Maybe you’re good at working towards almost all the disciplines at once – but struggle with simplicity!

Pay attention not only to what disciplines you feel a lack of in your life, but those you feel magnetically drawn to. These desires can be important signposts. Engaging in these disciplines more deeply may unlock something vital about your gifts and potential, and help crystallize your life’s purpose.

Know that it’s better not to get crazy excited about a discipline, plunge into it hardcore for a week, and then abandon it all together, then it is to aim for slow and steady progress. While it’s good to approach the disciplines with passion and excitement, realize that the excitement you feel will fade, and ebb and flow. Just like there are days you are more or less enthused about hitting the gym, sometimes you’ll be more and or less eager to practice the spiritual disciplines. Just like there are physical workouts that feel harder and easier to get through, expect to find that some sessions with the spiritual disciplines are deeply engrossing and nourishing, while others feel dry and unfruitful. Rather than feeling that resistance means you’re on the wrong track, or are just an undisciplined person who isn’t cut out for these practices, remember that friction is both natural and healthy; whether you’re lifting tangible or metaphorical weights, it’s during the “grind” that you get stronger. Make your commitment to the practice of the spiritual disciplines something that’s clear in both head and heart, and based more on regular habit than mood.

Finally, when your motivation flags, remind yourself that liberation comes through discipline. There are two kinds of freedom in this world: freedom from, and freedom to. When you do hard things – and living strenuously applies to physical, mental, and spiritual pursuits alike – you lose the freedom to follow the status quo, blindly follow your desires, and live an easy, mindless life; but you gain the freedom to master your lower impulses, reach for higher ideals, agilely navigate challenges, and access dimensions of existence that are hidden from the average man’s view.

Train for strength: Strength in body. Strength in mind, Strength in soul.

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Read the Other Articles in the Series

An Introduction 
Study & Self-Examination 
Solitude & Silence
Simplicity 
Fasting
Gratitude

General Overview of the Spiritual Disciplines

Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth by Richard Foster

Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life by Donald S. Whitney

Spiritual Disciplines Handbook by Adele A. Calhoun

Study and Self-Examination

The Jesuits Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life by James Martin, SJ 

Silence and Solitude

Solitude: A Philosophical Encounter by Philip Koch

A Time to Keep Silence by Patrick Leigh Fermor

Thoughts in Solitude by Thomas Merton

Simplicity

The Simple Life by Charles Wagner

Fasting 

Fasting: Spiritual Freedom Beyond Our Appetites by Lynne M. Baab

The Sacred Art of Fasting by Thomas Ryan, CSP

Gratitude

Gratitude Works! By Robert A. Emmons

The Spiritual Disciplines: Fasting

Welcome back to our series on the spiritual disciplines, which explores exercises that can be used to train the soul. The purposes and practices of these disciplines are approached in such a way that they can be adapted across belief systems.

“By overloading the body with food you strangle the soul and render it less active.” —Seneca

In our last installment of this series, we explored the spiritual discipline of simplicity, defining its essence as having a clear purpose in life, and then prioritizing the spending of time and resources in accordance with it. While we listed several ways of keeping one’s priorities in their proper places, today we discuss one of the best — a practice that also constitutes a spiritual discipline of its own: fasting.

The discipline of fasting dates to ancient times, is common to nearly every religion in the world (as well as philosophical systems like Stoicism), and is mentioned in the Bible more times than baptism. There’s a reason for this prevalence and universality.

Fasting is the most concrete and viscerally embodied of the spiritual disciplines, and its intersection of the physical and the metaphysical produces uniquely potent, perceptible, senses-arousing effects that bridge the often too-wide gap between body and soul.

In recent times, fasting has become popular for its health effects alone, but when also practiced as a spiritual discipline, it can unlock far more possibilities than can be read on a scale.

Today, we’ll dive into how to get the most out of fasting — using it as a vital tune up not only for the health of the body, but the fitness of the spirit.

What Is Fasting?

Fasting is voluntarily abstaining from something for a limited amount of time; it’s not fasting if you plan on giving up the thing for good, though at the end of a fast, you may decide not to reincorporate it back into your life. Depending on what is being fasted from, fasts can last from days to weeks.

Some people will fast from all solid food, but allow themselves to drink juice. Others will fast from certain kinds of food; Eastern Orthodox Christians, for example, fast each Wednesday and Friday from meat, fish, dairy, olive oil, and wine.

You can also fast from non-nutritive things, like technology or certain behavioral habits.

Most basically and traditionally, however, fasting involves abstaining from all food and caloric drink (sometimes water as well). And while we will touch on non-dietary-related fasting below, this is the form that serves as the focus of this piece.

 

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Fasting has gotten a lot of attention in recent years for the advantages it offers to physical health. While research on the subject is still relatively new, fasting may help you lose weight, normalize insulin levels, boost the immune system, increase human growth hormone, spur cell regeneration, and extend longevity. In giving your body a break from processing food, fat stores are fed upon and cells get a chance to go into repair mode — old and damaged ones are destroyed and new cells are generated. As Fr. Thomas Ryan puts it in The Sacred Art of Fasting: abstaining from food “gives the body a chance to renew itself. It is a time in which the body burns its rubbish. It’s like house-cleaning day.”

By sort of “taking out the trash,” fasting seems to have a vitalizing, balancing effect on the body’s hormonal and metabolic systems, and practitioners have reported a sharpening in mental functions as well.

While the spiritual discipline of fasting isn’t practiced primarily for reasons of physical health, these benefits shouldn’t be entirely separated from its purpose either. As Ryan explains, the discipline integrates benefits to both body and soul:

“It doesn’t have to be either/or . . .  It can and should be both, because we are not just bodies and we are not just spirits. We are embodied spirits. Enspirited flesh. What is good for me physically is good for me. And what is good for me spiritually is good for me. There’s only one ‘me’ to which it all comes back.”

That being said, it’s important to understand that in practicing fasting as a spiritual discipline, the physical is secondary, and serves as a vehicle to the spiritual; as Ryan puts it, “We manipulate the physical to gain access to the spiritual”; fasting “provides physical sensations that point to spiritual realities.” The hunger of stomach is designed to put us in touch with the hunger of soul.

What’s interesting, in fact, is the way the physical benefits of fasting symbolically mirror its spiritual ones; in the same way that fasting balances the body’s hormones and renews its cells, it recalibrates the soul’s priorities and repairs places in one’s character that have become damaged and diseased. In fasting, you both purify the body, and clarify the soul.

Fasting ultimately doesn’t rise to the level of a spiritual discipline unless you intentionally approach it as such. If you fast with spiritual aims, you’ll still automatically garner the physical benefits; but if you fast without spiritual intentions, the effects will extend only to the body, without significantly touching the soul.

While the specific spiritual aims of fasting vary by one’s faith tradition, there are many purposes that cut across schools of belief and philosophy:

Teaches That Discomfort ≠ Bad

Fasting is arguably the most countercultural of the spiritual disciplines. In a time of unprecedented conveniences — when every atmosphere is climate-controlled, food can be ordered with the press of a button, entertainment can be perfectly curated to personal taste, and we feel entitled to satisfy every desire immediately — anything uncomfortable seems like a wholly unnecessary annoyance. We expect to be ever full, ever satiated.

Yet fullness isn’t always good, and emptiness isn’t always bad. The constant craving for pleasure can be detrimental, and occasional discomfort can be exactly what we need.

Richard Foster writes of coming to this insight in The Celebration of Discipline:

“The first truth that was revealed to me in my early experiences in fasting was my lust for good feelings. It is certainly not a bad thing to feel good, but we must be able to bring that feeling to an easy place where it does not control us.”

Culturally, we have come to an understanding that the pain of exercise is necessary if we want to improve our physical health. But we rarely carry this acceptance into other areas of life, where it is just as true. Sometimes, almost always in fact, you have to make yourself uncomfortable in order to get better.

Sometimes you have to empty yourself to be filled.

Strengthens the Will

“More than any other Discipline fasting reveals the things that control us.” —Lynne M. Baab, Fasting

The will of the spirit is a muscle very much like those of the body; the more it is exercised, the stronger it gets. And fasting gives our willpower muscle an incomparable workout that not only builds its strength concerning what we consume, but in all areas of life.

This is where fasting ties into simplicity. To live the simple life, one must keep his purpose-driven priorities — his loves — in order. The challenge is that baser desires constantly seek to assert themselves over nobler ideals.

Fasting provides concrete, visceral practice in choosing higher principles over lower appetites. In feeling physical hunger, but disregarding its pull, you teach yourself that you’re the boss of your body — that you don’t take marching orders from your belly. You teach yourself that you’re the master of your appetites, rather than their slave.

In fasting, we have to face down our appetite for food, but this hunger stands in for all our other gnawing appetites. In overcoming what seems like an insatiable desire to eat, we come to realize that other desires that seemingly demand to be answered now, can in fact be postponed. We come to realize we can do without. We can control the things that seek to control us.

The self-restraint built by fasting from food becomes an aid in keeping all our priorities straight, helping us get a better grip on the constant battle between short-term pleasures and long-term goals. It’s a concrete practice that helps develop that nebulous thing called character.

Intensifies Prayer

“In every culture and religion in history, fasting has been an instinctive and essential language in our communication with the Divine.” —Fr. Thomas Ryan

While this purpose for fasting obviously only applies to theists, it’s quite central for those who do believe in God; in religious scriptures, whenever fasting is mentioned, it’s almost always connected with prayer.

Fasting intersects with and intensifies prayer in several ways.

First, accompanying prayer with fasting shows sincere intention. As Lynne M. Baab puts it, “The fast is somehow a declaration: This thing I’m praying for is so important that I’m willing to set aside my every life — including food — to focus on praying for it.”

Second, spiritual fasters will often choose a particular purpose for their fast (a question in need of guidance; a loved one in need of healing) and then use the hunger pangs induced by fasting as a reminder to pray for it; whenever they notice the gnaw of their appetite, they offer up a supplication. Baab compares this practice to “tying a ribbon around your finger to remember God.” In this way, fasting increases the number of times you pray throughout the day.

Physical hunger also intensifies the urgency of one’s prayers. If fasting “provides physical sensations that point to spiritual realities,” the desire for food heightens the desire to make known one’s deeper needs. Petitioning becomes pleading.

Finally, because fasting removes the need to eat, the time one would have used for meals can be used for prayers, which further amplifies their frequency and focus.

What effect do these fasting-produced intensifications have on the efficacy of prayer? The answer to that depends on your theology.

Some would say that the sacrifice of fasting can “release” a blessing or answer that otherwise wouldn’t have been granted — that, as in Jesus’ parable of the woman and the unjust judge, God will listen to those who show persistent effort. Others will say that you cannot, as Baab puts it, “manipulate God into doing what we want.” The petitioner is blessed instead in simply receiving guidance in how to pray, and finding a deeper connection to God through deeper prayer.

Whether or not fasting-strengthened prayer changes God’s receptivity to supplications, both sides agree that it changes the receptivity of the supplicator to God’s guidance. The physical emptiness of fasting clears the channels of communication so that spiritual intuitions can more readily be discerned. As Ryan puts it, fasting is “an action that renews contact with God, like removing the rust and corrosion from a car battery to enable the current to flow more freely.”

If you’re struggling with making a decision, rather than just praying about it, try accompanying those prayers with a fast.

Establishes Rhythms Between Absence and Abundance

In many religions, feasts are supposed to be preceded by fasts: Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians are asked to fast on Good Friday before the celebration of Easter; Jews are to fast for 25 hours for Yom Kippur before ending the holy day with a large, festive meal. And the converse is true; Christians may feast on “Fat Tuesday” (aka Mardi Gras) before the fasting of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, and Jews feast the afternoon before the fast of Yom Kippur begins.

While devout adherents of these religions continue to keep up these practices today, rather than participating in a rhythmic cycle of fasting and feasting, most modern people stay in constant feast mode. We stay pretty stuffed year round, and then on holidays, try to get really stuffed.

There’s no rhythm in this undeviating, linear state of satiation — no texture to our days, no ying and yang to our schedules, no real anticipation of our holidays.

As a result, our feasts lose much of their satisfaction.

You’ve probably heard of the “hedonic treadmill” — the idea that while new things give us a lot of enjoyment, we quickly adapt to them, and their pleasure diminishes. The only way to get the old “high” back is to run after more and more. But of course the cycle just repeats itself, and we end up stuck in an endless, unsatisfying wheel of desire.

Fasting interrupts and re-sets the hedonic treadmill. It restores an anticipation for eating that has long grown dull. In abstention, our normally saturated senses get a chance to recalibrate, so that when we eat again, the food has a bit of its “newness” back, and tastes better than ever. As the old saying goes, “hunger is the best spice.”

This Thanksgiving, instead of sitting down to dinner already slightly full, and then eating until you’re buttons-bursting full, try not eating for 24 hours before the meal. Fast before a feast, and you’ll discover a rhythm that makes special occasions actually feel special.

Fosters Gratitude and Humility

“drawing from the teachings of great men, I shall give you also a lesson: Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest of fare . . .  that it may be a test of yourself instead of a mere hobby. Then, I assure you, my dear Lucilius, you will leap for joy when filled with a pennyworth of food.” —Seneca

Speaking of Thanksgiving, fasting can not only increase your pleasure in eating, but also makes you more grateful for your food. Go without it for a time, and you’re less likely to take it for granted.

Fasting fosters humility in other ways as well. It’s a good chance to reflect on your mortality and finitude — your weakness, neediness, and brokenness. You’re a fragile creature that relies on the constant intake of external sustenance to function. Go for several weeks without it, and you’re dead. You’re not all-powerful. You’re not completely self-sustaining.

For a theist, this feeling of fasting-induced humility can extend to reflecting on their dependence on God as the ultimate source of life. For this reason, religions have often connected fasting with repentance — it’s an outward sign of inner abasement.

Gets You Out of a Rut and Re-Asserts Your Humanity

Despite how sophisticated, complex, interesting, and intellectual we typically consider ourselves to be, our behaviors can be awfully Pavlovian sometimes. Hear someone pop open a can of soda and we want one. Smell something cooking and we’re suddenly hungry. Like clockwork, our stomachs start growling at noon, because that’s when we always eat lunch.

And those are just our habits around food. Then there’s our smartphones, which can make us feel like rats in a lab who learn to press a lever to get their treats. Hear a notification, check your phone, hear a notification, check your phone. Press the lever, press the lever, press the lever. Even when our phone isn’t pinging, when we see it on our dresser, we’ll automatically make a detour to check the screen.

Even when our behaviors aren’t driven by reptilian instinct, we can still get stuck in some pretty fixed, and not always advantageous, routines.

Buddhist “Forest Monks” consider fasting to be one of the “dhutanga” austerities — a group of 13 ascetic practices. Dhutanga means “invigorate” or “shake up” and that’s exactly what fasting (whether from food or technology) can do to the de-humanizing ruts you fall into. It disrupts your routine in a life-affirming way.

You feel a hunger pang, and you ignore it. You always eat at noon, but today you’re not going to eat at all. You hear your phone ping, and you disregard it. You see your phone on your dresser, and you walk on by. As Baab writes, “fasting communicates a profound freedom. I don’t have to do things the same way, day after day. I am not a slave to my habits. I can change things around, I can try new things.”

Humans are the only creatures able to decide to shut down a lower instinct to reach for a higher purpose.

So fast to remember you’re a man, not a mouse.

Builds Solidarity With the Suffering, and Within a Community 

The worst part about having a friend or loved one who’s going through a hard time is the helplessness and impotence you feel as a bystander to their pain and suffering. Beyond offering words of encouragement, making them a meal, and sending your thoughts and prayers, there’s not a whole lot you can do.

Fasting at least adds a little sincerity and oomph to those ubiquitous thoughts and prayers. By adopting a little voluntary hardship, you also allow yourself to feel a tiny bit of the suffering someone is going through, which makes your empathy a little more visceral and real, and tends to keep the person more at the top of your mind.

Fasting isn’t just something that can help organize one’s personal anxieties into a concrete action; it can also mobilize a community that wishes to help. When someone is in need, groups of loved ones or church congregations will sometimes decide to all fast and pray for the person on the same day. Even if the fast has no metaphysical effect on the condition of the person going through a difficulty, the knowledge that a bunch of folks were willing to move beyond “thoughts and prayers” and actually sacrifice something, sends a powerful message of love and support. At the same time, being united in a purpose, and sharing in a little suffering themselves, brings the community of fasters together as well.

As Baab reports, there was actually a time in this country when fasting was something of a communal, civic duty:

“In 1774, when the British Parliament ordered an embargo on the Port of Boston, the legislative body of the State of Virginia called for a day of public humiliation [humility], prayer, and fasting. George Washington wrote in his journal that he fasted that day. In 1798, when the United States was on the verge of war with France, John Adams proclaimed a day of solemn humiliation, prayer, and fasting. During the War of 1812, the two houses of Congress passed a joint resolution calling for a day of public humiliation, prayer, and fasting.

During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln called three times for a day of national humiliation, prayer, and fasting. Lincoln encouraged fasting and prayer both in places of worship and in homes.”

These national days of fasting were aimed at petitioning for divine protection and guidance, fortifying the character of citizens for the challenge at hand, and creating solidarity amongst them.

Evokes Sympathy (and Charitable Giving) for the Poor

While most of us in the modern Western world have enough — too much — to eat each day, there are still people around the world, and in our own country, who do not.

Fasting fosters a sense of solidarity with these needy and often forgotten folks; by experiencing a little temporary hunger yourself, you may feel more sympathy for those who experience such pangs on a regular basis. The idea is not just to feel sorry for the poor, however, but to let this sympathy move you to action. Indeed, nearly every religion encourages the giving of alms as part of the discipline of fasting.

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Most religions have certain guidelines for how “official” fasts of the faith are to be carried out. But most also encourage their adherents to practice personal fasts outside proscribed holy days and other obligatory times.

Whether you’re religious and looking to begin your own fasts, or not religious but want to give the discipline of fasting a try, the following tips will help you make the practice a successful and edifying habit:

Decide the Parameters of Your Fast

These include exactly what you’ll be fasting from, and for how long.

For a traditional fast, you’ll be giving up food and caloric beverages. You may also decide to give up water too.

Research indicates that 16 hours seems to be about the minimum you have to fast to get some of the benefits fasting accrues to physical health. So that’s like stopping eating at 8 PM the first day, and then not eating again until noon the next day; you basically just skip breakfast. While this kind of “intermittent fasting” is easy enough to do every day, and good for the body, it’s not strenuous enough to have much of a spiritual effect. It can be a good way to dip your toes into fasting, however, as it will help stabilize your blood sugar so that longer fasts become easier.

Even if you’re a beginner and haven’t had any such practice with fasting, you should be fine jumping into a 24-hour fast in which you give up two meals: stop eating after dinner and start your fast; then skip breakfast and lunch the next day, breaking your fast with your next dinner. Keep in mind that while exercising on a day you’re fasting is possible, it’s going to make your hunger a lot more acute and your fast harder to keep, so you may want to fast on a day that you’ll be less active.

I’d also recommend that the beginner faster continue to drink water and other non-caloric beverages (a necessity if you’re exercising that day). I personally don’t find any added benefit to abstaining from water during a fast; it just makes me feel terrible instead of spiritual, and some caffeine can make it easier to keep from eating. Keep in mind that artificially-sweetened beverages can kick off your salivation for food, however.

I personally do a 24-hour fast about once a week, but even doing one once a month has been shown to produce the health benefits mentioned above.

Once you’ve gotten 24-hour, food-only fasts under your belt, you may want to experiment with longer fasts, or also abstaining from water. Use practical wisdom with your fasts, and of course talk to a doctor about any medical issues that may make fasting non-viable for you.

If you do have a health issue that prevents you from abstaining from all food, consider fasting by abstaining only from certain foods, or take a non-dietary fast.

You can in fact “fast” from anything in your life that’s taking up more space, attention, power, or influence than you’d like, and subsequently disordering your loves; consider fasting from anything that’s detracting from your higher priorities and needs to be rebalanced in your life.

This includes:

  • Any and all devices with screens (television; smartphone)
  • Sports or hobbies
  • Talking
  • Social media (or the internet altogether)
  • News
  • Music (altogether, or a certain kind)

During a limited period of abstention you can assess the role the thing you’re fasting from plays in your life. How much do you miss it? How much do you really need it? Is its absence adding to your life?

After this assessment period, you can decide how/if to re-introduce the habit into your life. If you find your life was better off without it, you may decide to give it up for good. Even if you do re-incorporate the habit, regularly fasting from it will help you practice the behavior with greater moderation.

Dedicate Your Fast to a Spiritual Purpose

As we said at the start, you won’t get much spiritual benefit from a fast if you don’t go into it actively seeking such. None of the purposes outlined above will manifest themselves unless you intentionally focus and reflect on them during your fast. It’s like going for a run; it can be a spiritual experience if you want it to be, but if that’s not your intention, it will just be a run; the mindset you bring to the practice matters.

So the first step to a successful fast is knowing your purpose going into it. You can dedicate your fast to one of the general purposes above, like becoming more grateful or strengthening your will. Or your purpose can be more specific, like getting an insight to a question you have or praying for someone who is sick. One reason to fast we haven’t mentioned yet is to express grief — fasting and mourning often went hand-in-hand in ancient times. You can also fast on the anniversary of a loss — it can make the remembrance more visceral and embodied, and it can just feel right to remain physically empty to honor the time someone you loved was taken out of your life.

As you open a fast, take a couple minutes to reflect on the purpose you’ll be dedicating it to. If you pray, tell God of your intentions and ask for guidance, discernment, insight, strength, etc. during your fast. At the end of the fast, bring it to a close with another time of reflection or prayer, contemplating how you felt during the fast and if your learned anything from it.

Follow Strategies That Will Help You Stay the Course and Make Fasting a Cheerful, Even Pleasurable Discipline

You may have tried fasting before, and found that rather than attaining zen, you were just cranky as all get out. Maybe you felt angry and impatient, and threw in the towel early.

Fasting is supposed to be a little difficult and uncomfortable — that’s part of its raison d’etre. But it can also be very doable to stick with, and even pleasurable in its own way. (Kind of like a tough workout hurts so good.)

For help in sticking with fasting, and making it a satisfying experience, employ these strategies:

Every time you feel a hunger pang, reflect and/or pray about your purpose. Let your fast be that ribbon tied around your finger. Every time you feel hungry, instead of reaching for food, use the moment to engage with why you’re fasting.

Stay away from food if you can, and use meal times for spiritual practice. While being around food and turning it down strengthens the will, try not to tempt yourself beyond what you can bear. Hanging out in a kitchen while cookies bake, or sitting down at a table where everyone else is chowing down, is going to make it harder for you to stick with your fast.

If it’s possible, stay away from food-filled situations, and use the time you’ve freed up by skipping meals to practice some other spiritual disciplines — seek solitude, pray, meditate, study, and, of course, reflect on the purpose of your fast.

Expect, and brush off, “clockwork” hunger pains. If you eat around the same times every day, your body will start releasing hunger-inducing hormones as those times approach in anticipation of the expected meal. When you feel these pangs, realize you’re not really that hungry, and that your body is just acting out of instinct. In fact, occasionally disrupting these patterns with a fast is part of what makes fasting healthifying, and remembering that fact can be motivating.

Repeat mantras to yourself when you’re tempted to give in. When hunger seems to be getting the best of you, repeat some mantras like these, that will remind you of your purpose:

  • I’m the boss of my body
  • I’m not a slave to my stomach
  • I don’t take marching orders from my belly
  • It’s trash day for my body
  • Man does not live by bread alone

Remember that billions of people do this all the time. If you’re new to fasting, it can feel like a big, nearly impossible challenge. Just remember that tons of people do this on a regular basis. Mormons fast once a month. Muslims fast for the entire month of Ramadan.

You can do this.

Read the Other Articles in the Series

An Introduction 
Study & Self-Examination 
Solitude & Silence
Simplicity 
Fasting
Gratitude

The Spiritual Disciplines: Simplicity

 Welcome back to our series on the spiritual disciplines, which explores exercises that can be used to train the soul. The purposes and practices of these disciplines are approached in such a way that they can be adapted across belief systems.

Just about everyone seems harried and unsatisfied these days: busy, exhausted, anxious, agitated, and overwhelmed.

In the midst of this discontent, one thing perennially holds out hope as the seeming master key to better things.

Simplicity.

Like solitude, the very word seems to have a bit of magic in it.

If I just simplified my life . . .” we say to ourselves again and again, as we imagine the possibilities that swing away from this hinge.

Simplicity presents itself as an all-powerful cleaver that can cut through a strangling tangle of Gordian knots. We want to shout it out: “KISS!” It sounds so very nice, we want, like Thoreau, to say it twice: Simplify, simplify.

Yet while we spend a lot of time dreaming about simplicity, we spend less time digging into what it actually means. We pursue the most accessible, outward, popularly-presented ways to attain the simple life, and are disappointed to find that our days still feel complicated, fragmented, burdensome.

Once you push past simplicity as a buzz word, as a snippet of a quote, as a fist-pumping maxim, you begin to find that it really isn’t so simple after all.

The truth is, attaining the simple life resists simple solutions. It is, however, every bit the master key it seems. We will thus first look at why the most common ways of seeking simplicity don’t ultimately penetrate to its core, and what constitutes the true heart of the simple life. We’ll then discuss how seeking simplicity can not only be a practical lifestyle choice, but a spiritual discipline that trains the soul to fulfill its mission.

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If asked to define simplicity, most people are apt to say that it has something to do with owning and doing less.

The most commonly presented and pursued pathways to the simple life thus tend to be 1) desiring and buying fewer material goods (and purging excess possessions already purchased), and 2) paring down one’s schedule.

Do these routes to simplicity ultimately take us to its heart? Let us examine each in turn.

Owning Less

The simple life is arguably most strongly associated with desiring and owning fewer possessions and material goods. Simplicity, from this perspective, is primarily an antidote to excessive greed and consumerism — the hunger for stuff.

At the opening of The Freedom of Simplicity, Richard Foster makes clear the cultural zeitgeist his book aims to push back against:

“Contemporary culture is plagued by a passion to possess. The unreasoned boast abounds that the good life is found in accumulation, that ‘more is better.’ Indeed, we often accept this notion without question, with the result that the lust for affluence in contemporary society has become psychotic.”

Published in 1981, Foster’s book was part of a long line of jeremiads issued in that decade and into the 1990s that lamented the “greed is good” ethos of the period. Other books, like 1999’s No Logo, criticized the creeping consumerism and excessive branding that saw young adults walking around with corporate logos plastered on their t-shirts.

That the main obstacle to the simple life is the burdensome accumulation of stuff, and that simplicity is primarily found through shirking shopping and decluttering one’s home, has in more recent times launched a thousand zealously followed books and blogs. With its rules for living more purely and rites of cleansing, the “minimalism” movement has almost become a kind of secular religion; he who loses his stuff, shall find his life.

Yet while modern media on simplicity has been ringing the same bell as Foster did 36 years ago, his, and their, description of a consumerism-mad society no longer rings as true.

Anecdotally, I don’t know any Millennials who care very much for “stuff,” nor for the traditional markers of status. And research bears this out. While young adults are laden with student loans, the percentage of those under 35 with credit card debt is at its lowest level in 30 years. Only a third of Millennials even have credit cards — half the number of older generations. In contrast to brand-loyal Baby Boomers, most Millennials are just as happy with generic products, and they are less interested in luxury goods of all kinds. Overall, Millennials are saving more money than other generations, and 90% feel they have a sufficient income for their needs. These and other signs point to the prognosis that, rather than continuing the trend of hyper acquisitiveness, Millennials may actually become the next “Greatest Generation” of personal finance.

In fact, minimalism has arguably become so popular not because it addresses a contemporary problem, but because its ethos aligned with a new zeitgeist already emergent in the culture.

Has Generation Y turned away from consumerism because of a change of heart, a reaction against the shop-til-you-drop mentality of their parents, a turning of the generational cycle? Or is it a philosophy born of necessity: having come of age during the Great Recession, they can’t spend as much money, simply because they don’t have as much money to spend? Probably a little of both. Either way, it seems to be the new reality, at least for now.

If the heart of simplicity was owning less stuff, then one would expect that as the desire for and accumulation of material goods has gone down, people’s feeling of living the simple life would have gone up. But in fact, it seems the very opposite has happened; the number of young adults who feel anxious and overwhelmed has actually significantly increased over the last few decades. Overall, there does not seem to be an uptick in people who feel their life is contentedly simple.

Of course, it may be the case that an increase in other anxiety-producing factors has canceled out the centering effect of increasing material minimalism. Or perhaps while the amount of possessions people accumulate has gone down, most still own far too much and continue to be negatively impacted by their stuff.

Simple experience and observation, however, add evidence that practicing minimalism, though it can support a commitment to the simple life, doesn’t take you all the way into its essence.

I’ve known men who fill their basements with yard sale-procured knickknacks that, though interesting, fall far short of the standard set by famous decluttering guru Marie Kondo for keeping something in your home — that it sparks joy — and whose garages are cluttered with all kinds of junk simply because they don’t care to sort through it all. And yet, they seem to live lives that exude a far profounder simplicity than some folks who inhabit a bare apartment and own only one hundred things.

Think, for example, of our Greatest Generation grandparents: many, because they grew up during the Depression, became unapologetic hoarders, and yet they seemingly embodied a simplicity more grounded than our own.

In my own life, I’ve found that decluttering certainly feels deeply satisfying in the moment — it does indeed seem to scratch a primeval, almost “religious,” itch for ritualistic purging. But the act seems to have little effect in the long run. My life feels just about as satisfying, and simple, whether my junk drawer is empty or full. Decluttering perhaps alleviates a bit of psychic pressure, but ultimately doesn’t prove significantly transformative.

Again, this isn’t to say that material minimalism isn’t an important support to the simple life; accumulating less stuff means you have fewer things to care for and manage, and less chance of going into debt, and thus free yourself from potential complications and burdens.

But it is ultimately only an appendage of simplicity; to find the core of the simple life, we must dig still deeper.

Doing Less

If it isn’t too much literal stuff that’s the most salient obstacle standing in the way of experiencing the simple life, then maybe it’s having too much stuff on one’s metaphorical plate. Too many competing interests. A schedule that’s too stressful and crowded.

Certainly, many people, probably most, claim to be perennially, insanely busy.

Yet here again the data don’t bear out the common narrative. Studies actually show that on average, people’s free time has been going up, not down. Since the 1960s, work hours have decreased by almost eight hours a week, while leisure time has gone up by almost seven hours.

Civic engagement has declined over the last 50 years, so people are already less involved in their communities. Young adults are hosting and attending social events 40% less often than they did a decade ago, and not surprisingly, the number of close friends people have has declined as well; so people are already spending less time hanging out with each other.

Yet in the same way that people are buying less, without feeling like their lives have gotten any simpler, people are working less and doing less, without experiencing a sense of greater simplicity. In fact, as our activities have gone down, our stress has seemingly gone up! To wit: 40% of Americans say they’re overworked, half feel there are too many tasks to complete each week, two-thirds feel they don’t have enough time for themselves or their spouses, and three-fourths say they don’t get to spend as much time with their kids as they’d like.

This data certainly cast doubt on the idea that just doing less will bring about the simple life. So does observation.

Think again of our grandparents’ generation . . . my own grandfather was more engaged and busy than I — this forester and father of five was involved in the Rotary Club, the Lion’s Club, the Society of American Foresters, the Boy Scouts, and more. He did so very much in his life, and yet embodied a sense of steady simplicity greater than my own.

While the injunction to “do less” does tell us something about simplicity, it alone seems to lack the power to bring the simple life about. There is clearly yet another layer missing, if we wish to understand simplicity in full.

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“There’s no point in simplifying your life if you are steering toward an end point that doesn’t matter to begin with.” —Bill Hybels, Simplify 

Paring down one’s possessions and schedule are go-to ways to seek simplicity because they are outward, accessible, concrete actions that produce fairly immediate results. Their weakness, when practiced as their own ends, however, is that they lack a set of overarching criteria for how they should be carried out, as well as intrinsic motivation for following them through.

Practicing outward moves towards simplification, without this set of criteria, is like placing spokes in a wheel, without connecting them to a hub.

Simplicity needs a heart, and its center must be this: having a clear purpose.

Without a clear purpose, you lack a rubric for deciding how to spend your time (and resources).

Should you work those extra hours? Should you say yes to this or that obligation? Will a certain purchase take you closer or further from your goals?

If you arrive at the end of each day feeling fragmented and restless — like you didn’t accomplish what you hoped, didn’t spend your time the way you’d have liked — and yet don’t know exactly how and what you would change, you’re not living the simple life.

Without a clear purpose, your progress towards long-term goals is too easily hijacked by short-term distractions and pleasures.

If you have important things to do, but haphazardly cycle between engaging the work at hand, looking at your phone, forgetting what you were thinking about, and struggling to get back on track, you are not living the simple life.

Without purpose at the center of simplicity, your life is divided and distracted — you aimlessly drift through your days in a series of unnecessary zigs and zags.

With a clear a purpose installed as the heart of simplicity, you live a life that is unified and focused; everything flows out of this center, and you move steadily and directly towards your goals.

To reach these goals, you must invariably do some things less. But there are also always things that you must do more. True simplicity is doing less of what matters least, and more of what matters most. You don’t just empty your life of the bad, you fill it with the good. Having a purpose allows you to discern whether a particular area of life should be constricted or expanded; purpose produces priorities.

Indeed, you arrive at the core of simplicity when you understand that it doesn’t necessarily require doing less, but rather prioritizing the things you want to do, and lending these tasks/roles the power, influence, time, and attention appropriate to their position in the order you set.

Purpose-driven simplicity enables you to choose the essential over the secondary; the important over the urgent; the best over the good. It guides you in doing the right things, at the right time (and for the right amount of time).

Here’s an example of how this works.

I would say my purpose is this: To be a dedicated disciple of Christ, be the very best husband and father I can be, create content on the Art of Manliness that improves men’s lives, and stay physically strong throughout my life. That’s my purpose in life, and it also describes my priorities, which I order in the same way:

  1. Be a disciple of Christ
  2. Be the best husband and father
  3. Create content on the Art of Manliness that improves men’s lives
  4. Stay physically strong throughout my life

By knowing my priorities, and their order of importance, I know which roles and tasks in my life deserve the most time and attention, and which deserve less. I have clear criteria in making decisions about how to spend my days. For example, if, after my set work hours, I find myself trying to cram in some more work, but my kid wants to play a game with me, I will literally say to myself, “Which activity is more aligned with my purpose?” Because being a good dad is a higher priority than work, I’m able to put down my phone, and turn my attention to my child.

Having a purpose gives my life a unifying principle, around which all my tasks and decisions center; each has its place and function and works towards a singular goal. That’s inner integration. That’s simplicity.

Once you’ve got your purpose and priorities set, then things like buying less, practicing minimalism, and trimming your schedule come into play and can serve as important supports in helping you achieve your goals. If a cluttered house detracts from your mood at home, so that you’re less contented when interacting with your family, clean it up. If buying something would contribute to your debt, and your debt would keep you from starting the business you dream of launching, don’t buy it. If any obligation doesn’t align with your purpose, and your time could be better spent on something that does, cut it out of your life.

But you need to know your purpose first in order to direct these actions, and sustain your motivation for doing them. Otherwise, you’re just re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. It’s interesting to note that while people feel busier these days (and have been dropping concrete activities in order to “simplify”), the amount of hours folks are watching television keeps on going up; if you decide to do less, but don’t have a reason why, you won’t end up doing less in general, but simply default to doing more of a mindless activity. You must know your why. And you must never confuse the spokes of simplicity with the hub.

When you live simply, you know what you’re about, you know what’s most important to you, and you spend your time and resources in ways that are proportional to those priorities. The simple life is the focused life, and focus comes only through purpose.

What Is the Purpose of the Spiritual Discipline of Simplicity?

“We do not mean . . . that simplicity betrays itself in no visible signs, has not its own habits, its distinguishing tastes and ways; but this outward show, which may now and then be counterfeited, must not be confounded with its essence and its deep and wholly inward source. Simplicity is a state of mind. It dwells in the main intention of our lives. A man is simple when his chief care is the wish to be what he ought to be . . . And this is neither so easy nor so impossible as one might think. At bottom, it consists in putting our acts and aspirations in accordance with the law of our being, and consequently with the Eternal Intention which willed that we should be at all.” —Charles Wagner, The Simple Life (1901)

“If you want to have a spiritual life you must unify your life. A life is either all spiritual or not spiritual at all. No man can serve two masters. Your life is shaped by the end you live for. You are made in the image of what you desire.” —Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude

So now we know what simplicity is, but in what way does its pursuit constitute a spiritual discipline? After all, plenty of “secular” blogs talk about the practical value of minimalism, and business books argue for the importance of priorities and even purpose in achieving financial success.

While simplicity isn’t necessarily spiritual, it can be. Under what circumstances? To put it most, well, simply, pursuing simplicity is spiritual when your purpose is spiritual. When your purpose is a higher one, when it’s something beyond making X amount of dollars or visiting X number of countries, when it’s bigger than self, seeks to serve others, and has a moral component, then pursuing it constitutes a spiritual discipline. As Thomas Merton put it, “To unify your life, unify your desires. To spiritualize your life, spiritualize your desires.”

Naturally, the purpose of the spiritual discipline of simplicity is to achieve one’s spiritual purpose. It is predicated on the idea that you have a unique personal ministry to offer, an individual mission to fulfill — that there are things for you to do, that only you can do.

You have a sacred obligation to become who you are. And you can only fulfill this calling by becoming a wise steward of your precious, divinely-gifted time and resources.

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“When one passes in review the individual causes that disturb and complicate our social life, by whatever names they are designated, and their list would be long, they all lead back to one general cause, which is this: the confusion of the secondary with the essential. Material comfort, education, liberty, the whole of civilization—these things constitute the frame of the picture; but the frame no more makes the picture than the frock the monk or the uniform the soldier. Here the picture is man, and man with his most intimate possessions—namely, his conscience, his character, and his will. And while we have been elaborating and garnishing the frame, we have forgotten, neglected, disfigured the picture. Thus are we loaded with external good, and miserable in spiritual life; we have in abundance that which, if must be, we can go without, and are infinitely poor in the one thing needful. And when the depth of our being is stirred, with its need of loving, aspiring, fulfilling its destiny, it feels the anguish of one buried alive—is smothered under the mass of secondary things that weigh it down and deprive it of light and air.

We must search out, set free, restore to honor the true life, assign things to their proper places, and remember that the center of human progress is moral growth.” —Charles Wagner

The specific ways to practice the spiritual discipline of simplicity center on training the soul to keep its priorities in an order that will work towards the fulfillment of one’s ultimate purpose.

When your purpose is a spiritual one, it in fact becomes more apt to refer to your habits as “loves” rather than “priorities.” If you remember from our introduction to the spiritual disciplines, Saint Augustine argued that virtue is essentially “rightly ordered love,” and that sin, conversely, is disordered love. When we say we love God and our family most of all, but we continually choose to surf social media instead of pray, and work late instead of coming home for dinner, we’ve gotten our loves out of order.

The practices around the spiritual discipline of simplicity are designed to put your loves in their proper places, so that you give each the right amount of power, attention, and time.

In this way, you can marshal the forces of your life towards your purpose. As Charles Wagner puts it in The Simple Life:

“The necessary hierarchy of powers is organized within: the essential commands, the secondary obeys, and order is born of simplicity.

We may compare this organization of the interior life to that of an army. An army is strong by its discipline, and its discipline consists in respect of the inferior for the superior, and the concentration of all its energies toward a single end: discipline once relaxed, the army suffers. It will not do to let the corporal command the general. Examine carefully your life and the lives of others. Whenever something halts or jars, and complications and disorder follow, it is because the corporal has issued orders to the general.”

The task is to become the master of your passions instead of their slave; to throw off the tyranny of the trivial and become king of the meaningful. Putting your purpose in charge of your appetites is, of course, not an easy task: they ever pull us towards choosing short-term temptations over long-term goals, lower pleasures over higher ideals.

The following practices will help keep your priorities/loves rightly aligned as you seek after the simple life. Though they require submitting yourself to discipline, like all forms of discipline, the training both structures your life and liberates it. Lost is the freedom from being able drift any which way; gained is the freedom to spend your energies on that which matters most, instead of frittering them away on that which matters least.

Freedom from, or freedom to: which will you choose?

Know Your Purpose

“My schedule is far less about what I want to get done and far more about who I want to become.” —Bill Hybel

“I despair of ever describing simplicity in any worthy fashion. All the strength of the world and all its beauty, all true joy, everything that consoles, that feeds hope, or throws a ray of light along our dark paths, everything that makes us see across our poor lives a splendid goal and a boundless future, comes to us from people of simplicity, those who have made another object of their desires than the passing satisfaction of selfishness and vanity, and have understood that the art of living is to know how to give one’s life.” —Charles Wagner

Of course, this is the very heart of it all; that which must be in place for everything else to fall into line. Don’t keep re-adjusting the spokes of a hub-less wheel: as we’ve hopefully made abundantly clear, without knowing your purpose, you can’t know your priorities, and if you don’t know your priorities, your life is destined to be scattered, confused, complicated, ineffective, and wholly un-simple.

How to figure out your life’s purpose lies outside the scope of this article; in fact, it arguably lies outside the scope of any article. It’s not something you can learn by following a series of steps and tips. Rather, purpose is a matter of matching your particular gifts and desires to a particular set of problems. It’s distilled out of years of trial and error, and paying attention to your experience. It is found through study, prayer, experimentation, self-examination, and observation. Run that cycle enough times, and you’ll discover what you’re about and what you’re here to do.

While everyone’s personal mission will vary, there is one spiritual purpose common to us all: to make the most of what we’ve got and use our limited time on earth to become our best selves. Wagner describes this task well:

“The human ideal is to transform life into something more excellent than itself. We may compare existence to raw material. What it is, matters less than what is made of it, as the value of a work of art lies in the flowering of the workman’s skill. We bring into the world with us different gifts: one has received gold, another granite, a third marble, most of us wood or clay. Our task is to fashion these substances. Everyone knows that the most precious material may be spoiled, and he knows, too, that out of the least costly an immortal work may be shaped. . . True life is the realization of the higher virtues,—justice, love, truth, liberty, moral power,—in our daily activities, whatever they may be. And this life is possible in social conditions the most diverse, and with natural gifts the most unequal. It is not fortune or personal advantage, but our turning them to account, that constitutes the value of life. Fame adds no more than does length of days: quality is the thing.

Need we say that one does not rise to this point of view without a struggle? The spirit of simplicity is not an inherited gift, but the result of a laborious conquest.”

Remind Yourself of Your Purpose

“Without courage we can never attain to true simplicity. Cowardice keeps us ‘double minded.'” —Thomas Merton

It’s not enough to simply know your purpose. Humans are slothful and forgetful creatures; without effort, your purpose will continually slide from the front of your mind to the back. You have to continually remind yourself of it.

Consider writing your purpose down and placing in on your bathroom mirror and your desk at work. Repeat it to yourself every morning and night.

The more you keep your purpose at the forefront of your mind, the easier it will be to keep your priorities straight and choose the best over the good. When faced with a decision about how to spend your time (or your money), ask yourself: “Which of these choices most aligns with my purpose?”

Practice Minimalism With Your Possessions

Despite all the above caveats, the practice of minimalism can be a valuable support to living the simple life. Excess clutter can be a little distracting, and sap some of the valuable mental bandwidth you could be putting towards more important things. Further, the more you desire material things, the more you’ve got to work to earn the money to buy them, and the more you have to work, the less time you’ll have to spend on other priorities in your life. Start running on that treadmill, and your loves will soon be grossly out of order.

As Wagner argues, buying and owning fewer possessions also teaches you to attach less of your identity to your things, which prepares you to weather life’s ups and downs, and even be of more service to your neighbor:

“Whether it be a question of food, dress, or dwelling, simplicity of taste is also a source of independence and safety. The more simply you live, the more secure is your future; you are less at the mercy of surprises and reverses.

An illness or a period of idleness does not suffice to dispossess you: a change of position, even considerable, does not put you to confusion. Having simple needs, you find it less painful to accustom yourself to the hazards of fortune. You remain a man, though you lose your office or your income, because the foundation on which your life rests is not your table, your cellar, your horses, your goods and chattels, or your money. In adversity you will not act like a nursling deprived of its bottle and rattle. Stronger, better armed for the struggle, presenting, like those with shaven heads, less advantage to the hands of your enemy, you will also be of more profit to your neighbor. For you will not rouse his jealousy, his base desires or his censure, by your luxury, your prodigality, or the spectacle of a sycophant’s life; and, less absorbed in your own comfort, you will find the means of working for that of others.”

The number of possessions you need and desire will vary according to your circumstances — whether you’re a bachelor or family man. Don’t force yourself to only own an arbitrary number of things. As long as your home and workspace feel clean, “tight,” and organized to you, that’s what matters.

Purge your place of most everything you haven’t used in a year, and don’t feel you’ll ever use again. If you really aren’t sure whether something should be kept or chucked, hey, go ahead and ask yourself: Does it spark joy?

Avoid Debt

“the important thing is that at the center of shifting circumstance man should remain man, live his life, make toward his goal. And whatever be his road, to make toward his goal, the traveler must not lose himself in crossways, nor hamper his movements with useless burdens. Let him heed well his direction and forces, and keep good faith; and that he may the better devote himself to the essential—which is to progress—at whatever sacrifice, let him simplify his baggage.” —Charles Wagner

Simplicity gives the freedom to concentrate on what matters most; debt destroys it. It’s hard to put family first when you need to put in overtime to pay the bills. It’s hard to donate money to charitable causes when most of your paycheck is already spoken for.

It’s hard to help others when you’re standing in a hole.

Debt is an albatross that can force you to order your priorities in ways that don’t match your purpose. Get rid of it as soon as you can.

Declutter Your Digital Life

While material possessions get the lion’s share of attention as hindrances to simplicity, once you understand that its heart is a singular focus on your purpose, you realize it’s not physical clutter that’s the biggest obstacle to the simple life these days, but the digital variety.

Nothing sabotages our desire to concentrate on what matters quite like our smartphones. We want to be present with our kids but we’re checking email. We want to study in solitude, but we can’t break away from our cycle of scrolling.

We say we love our family and faith most of all, but spend more time looking into a glowing screen than into our spouse’s eyes; more time consulting the oracle of Google than the scriptures.

Our digital devices constantly tempt us to get the order of our loves out of whack. The result is day after distracted day of feeling scattered and restless. Our lives feel like fragmented pieces, rather than a simple, unified whole. And though we feel guilty and restless in wasting time on the insignificant and trivial, we just keep on doing it.

We must thus not only purge and organize our physical spaces, but our digital ones too. Follow this guide to “declutter” your phone and make it less of a priority-upending distraction.

Schedule Your Time (Putting in Your Big Rocks Before Your Small Ones)

To stay focused on what’s most meaningful, rather than being at the mercy of the merely urgent, you’ve got to schedule out your days and weeks. And in doing so, you’ve got to set inviolable times for your big rocks — your most important tasks — first. If you place the highest priority on your big rocks, you’ll still have time to complete small tasks and chores. But if you always go after the small rocks — trying to put out fires and tackle whatever happens to land on your to-do list — you’ll never get to your most purpose-aligned work.

Turn Your Priorities Into Habits

Having to decide over and over again to put a priority into practice is exhausting and ineffective. Sometimes you’ll have the willpower to do it, and sometimes you’ll be tempted to do something else instead. This checkered success rate makes for a life that’s divided and complicated instead of unified and simple.

Few things simplify one’s life like forming good habits and making them part of a regular routine. Rather than having to expend the effort in constantly choosing and re-choosing your priorities, they practically unfold on auto-pilot. Rather than having to flagellate yourself to get out of bed each morning to exercise, you just do. Rather than hemming and hawing about going to Mass on Saturday night, you just do.

Habits turn your priorities from things you have to grit your teeth to execute into things you just do.

Work When You Work; Play When You Play

Within your purpose, you’ll have several priorities and you’ll spend each day, and your whole life, toggling between them.

Yet while you have many roles in life, at any given moment, you should try to fully inhabit the task at hand. Try to do just ONE thing at a time, and be fully present in that frame.

We typically divide up our attention instead: we work for a few minutes, check our phone for a few, get back to work, and then turn back to the phone. And the converse is equally true: we interrupt our leisure time to check email and dabble in some work. Our work is interlaced with “play” and our play is interlaced with work, so that everything we experience is fragmented rather than whole.

Such checkered experiences produce checkered results. When we play when we work, our work suffers because our concentration is divided, and we don’t even enjoy our “play,” because we feel guilty knowing we should be working. When we work when we play, we can never fully let go.

To simplify your life, work when you work, and play when you play. Be multi-faceted as a man, but single-minded in your moments.

Remember, the simple life is the focused life.

Learn to Say No

“by dint of action, and exacting from himself strict account of his deeds, man arrives at a better knowledge of life. Its law appears to him, and the law is this: Work out your mission. He who applies himself to aught else than the realization of this end, loses in living the raison d’être of life.” —Charles Wagner

“The one prudence in life is concentration; the one evil is dissipation.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson

A popular mantra of modern life is to “Go big!” But the mantra of the simple life is the very opposite: Go small.

When you live the simple life, you’re not necessarily going to do less in general, but you’re going to do less of everything that’s tangential to your purpose, so you can do more of what matters most. Rather than trying to do everything, you concentrate on just a small handful of purpose-driven priorities. You have a highly distilled sense of what you care about and what you’re going to spend your time, money, and energy on.

In order to keep that kind of narrow focus, you have to be ruthless in saying no to anything and everything that’s not aligned with it. Sometimes your answer is not a forever No, but a “No for now.” The ask or opportunity is something that may one day be one of your most important things, but it’s not currently the right season for it.

As someone once told the famous author and real estate executive Gary Keller, “one ‘yes’ must be defended over time by 1,000 ‘nos.’” You’ll not only have to say no to people who ask you to do things, but no to the urge to check your phone when you’re working, and no to tiredness and laziness and lust. Not just no to the obviously bad, but no thank you to the good, to concentrate on the best.

Saying no to one thing means saying yes to another. You add to your life by subtracting. Via negativa is the way of the simple life.

There’s one more practice that serves as a tremendous aid in living the spiritual discipline of simplicity; one that’s in fact a discipline of its own, and deserves its own article: fasting. To its priority-protecting power is where we will turn next time.

Read the Other Articles in the Series

An Introduction 
Study & Self-Examination 
Solitude & Silence
Simplicity 
Fasting
Gratitude

The Spiritual Disciplines: Solitude and Silence

Welcome back to our series on the spiritual disciplines, which explores exercises that can be used to train the soul. The purposes and practices of these disciplines are approached in such a way that they can be adapted across belief systems.

“Not all men are called to be hermits, but all men need enough silence and solitude in their lives to enable the deep inner voice of their own true self to be heard at least occasionally. When that inner voice is not heard, when man cannot attain to the spiritual peace that comes from being perfectly at one with his true self, his life is always miserable and exhausting. For he cannot go on happily for long unless he is in contact with the springs of spiritual life which are hidden in the depths of his own soul. If man is constantly exiled from his own home, locked out of his own spiritual solitude, he ceases to be a true person. He no longer lives as a man.” —Thomas Merton

They are the spiritual disciplines through which prophets as varied as Moses, John the Baptist, Jesus, Buddha, and Muhammad prepared for their ministries and received revelations that founded new religions.

They are the spiritual disciplines that have been praised by poets and philosophers as diverse as Plato, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Montaigne, Rousseau, Goethe, Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Muir, Tillich, and Camus (to name only a few).

They are the spiritual disciplines that allowed many of the world’s greatest leaders, from Ulysses S. Grant and Abraham Lincoln to Winston Churchill and Theodore Roosevelt, to make history defining decisions.

They are the spiritual disciplines of solitude and silence, and they are vitally important to the health of the soul (and of society).

They are also arguably the most intriguing and compelling of the spiritual disciplines, and yet also seem the hardest to come by in our crowded, noisy, modern world.

Silence and solitude can seem out of reach to the average man — the exclusive purview of the kind of religious ascetics and hermetic philosophers just mentioned, or a luxury that can be indulged only by those leaders who face choices freighted with heavy meaning and high stakes.

In truth, finding solitude and silence is possible even in the present age, without having to retreat to a cloister. And, far from being the privilege of the few, seeking these states is a responsibility of us all.

Today we will explain why that is, the way in which these spiritual disciplines are connected, and how both can be sought, and attained, by even the busiest of souls.

 

 

 

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What Is Solitude? 

“I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude.” —Henry David Thoreau

In Solitude: A Philosophical Encounter, Philip Koch notes the qualities commonly associated with solitude: physical isolation, stillness, quiet, and social disengagement.

He then scrutinizes these features, and finds them all wanting as necessary conditions for solitude, except for one.

Physical isolation? Certainly, this is what most often comes to mind when we picture solitude; we imagine the monk alone in the cell of an abbey, or the mountain man secluded in a cabin.

But is it not possible to withdraw inwardly even in the midst of a crowd? There are monks that live in the company of others, but still live very solitary lives. And even those outside a cloister can inhabit a kind of solitude any time they shut out what is going on around them to focus on their personal tasks and thoughts. As Thoreau argued, “Solitude is not measured by the miles of space that intervene between a man and his fellows. The really diligent student in one of the crowded hives of a college is as solitary as a dervish in the desert.” Or as the Chinese saying puts it: “Greatest hermit in crowded street.”

Richard Foster makes the point this way in Celebration of Discipline:

“Solitude is more a state of mind and heart than it is a place. There is a solitude of the heart that can be maintained at all times. Crowds, or the lack of them, have little to do with this inward attentiveness.”

Solitude necessitates the creation of one’s own world, but such a world does not require physical walls.

Quiet cannot be deemed essential to solitude for a similar reason. Though, as we’ll see, silence is strongly connected to solitude, if it’s possible to beat an internal retreat in the company of others, it’s possible to be solitary in the presence of noise as well.

What about stillness? While we may think of solitude in terms of meditating in an ashram or studying in a monastic cell, is not the man running a trail or splitting wood alone both solitary and active?

Physical isolation, stillness, and silence may all work to enhance solitude, but they’re not required for its existence.

This leaves social disengagement, Koch observes, as “the most promising place to look for the core of solitude.” We can find solitude when surrounded by human-made stimuli — as long as we aren’t attending to it. “Solitude is, most ultimately, simply an experiential world in which other people are absent” — and it matters not whether they are removed by physical bounds, or simply in the way we choose to apply our mental focus.

We can further define solitude on the basis of intentionality. One can be disengaged from others, but not by choice. The result is a feeling of loneliness. Solitude is a state, rather than an emotion, and it can be filled with any emotion, positive or negative. So one can be lonely in solitude, but feeling lonely is not necessarily the same thing as experiencing solitude. In solitude, you are not merely alone, but have deliberately separated yourself from others.

Taken all together, we can therefore define solitude this way: the intentional withdrawal from social engagement.

What Is Silence?

“To every thing there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven . . . a time to keep silence and a time to speak.” —Ecclesiastes: III, 1 & 7

Silence is easier to define than solitude.

In the spiritual realm, it is not the literal absence of all noise, but the absence of all human-created stimuli. “Human-created” because most would consider a walk in the woods, in which the sounds of nature are present, to still be a time of “silence.”

In silence, one ceases the consumption of any human-created input, and this includes not only audible stimuli, but the reading of the written word as well — an act that, though quiet, still involves “listening” to the text.

Silence further encompasses not just the quieting of external noise produced by others, but also the noise produced by oneself; it requires the cessation of all talking, or speaking only when absolutely necessary.

In silence, the only words one attends to are those that are created inwardly, and the only words one produces take the form of personal writing/journaling.

This personal quietude finally extends not only to the consumption/production of words and sound, but to a whole way of being, well described by Ohiyesa (Charles Eastman), a Sioux tribesman:

“Silence is the absolute poise or balance of body, mind, and spirit. The man who preserves his selfhood ever calm and unshaken by the storms of existence—not a leaf, as it were, astir on the tree; not a ripple upon the surface of shining pool—his, in the mind of the unlettered sage, is the ideal attitude and conduct of life.”

What Is the Relationship Between Silence and Solitude?

In defining solitude, we noted that silence is not an essential precondition for its existence. But while silence may not be strictly necessary for solitude, the two are very closely connected.

Though it is possible to attain solitude in the presence of crowds and noise by withdrawing one’s attention from these external stimuli and directing it inward, in practice, this is quite difficult. Attention becomes fragmented; you can’t make it very far into your own world when interruptions keep dragging you out.

Conversely, the more silent one’s environment, the easier it becomes to disengage from social demands and external distractions, and the deeper one’s solitude becomes.

There is then a direct relationship between the profundity of silence, and the depth of solitude. To fully experience the latter does require the presence of the former, and we will thus largely be talking about silence and solitude as an inseparable pair.

Why Are Solitude and Silence So Compelling?

“Solitude bears the same relation to the mind that sleep does to the body. It affords it the necessary opportunities for repose and recovery.” —William G. Simms

The need for silence and solitude obviously seems incredibly relevant to the over-convenienced citizens of the modern world who feel saturated with the ceaseless noise that issues from every corner of their lives. But as mentioned at the start, men have in fact craved these states for thousands of years, long before anything digital, or electronic, or urban ever existed.

What accounts for the timeless, seemingly universal appeal of quiet seclusion?

Humans are often called social animals, and we certainly are. But this quality developed more from necessity than choice; humans needed other humans to survive, and thus were kind of stuck with living life in community. But people have always felt both gratitude and resentment for this obligation. We enjoy the pleasures of company, while simultaneously wishing to flee the responsibilities attendant to living in relationship. We appreciate the protections of the herd, but don’t wish our individuality to be subsumed within it. We are both attracted to, and repulsed by, our fellow man. A moderate dose of community makes us healthy; saturation with the other makes us sick.

When we are able to be by ourselves, even for a short time, we affirm our independent identity, the reality of our individual existence; we temporarily thwart the law of the herd, that says we will die if we leave the tribe, and show ourselves we can exist alone, at least for a time. This is the thrill of solitude; this is its magnetic allure.

The re-charging spark of silent solitude is needed by all. Extroverts may need less, and introverts more, but neither group can entirely do without. One’s circumstances don’t alter this equation either. Solitude remains a need whether one lives in a situation of luxury and noise, or deprivation and quiet.

When the famous psychiatrist Viktor Frankl was imprisoned at Auschwitz, he could not have lived a more stripped down and vulnerable existence, and yet he still felt the impulse to break away from others:

“There were times, of course, when it was possible, and even necessary, to keep away from the crowd. . . . The prisoner craved to be alone with himself and his thoughts. He yearned for privacy and for solitude. After my transportation to a so-called ‘rest-camp’ I had the rare fortune to find solitude for about five minutes at a time. Behind the earthen hut where I worked and in which were crowded about fifty delirious patients, there was a quiet spot in a corner of the double fence of barbed wire surrounding the camp. A tent had been improvised there with a few poles and branches of trees in order to shelter a half-dozen corpses (the daily death rate in the camp). There was also a shaft leading to the water pipes. I squatted on the wooden lid of this shaft whenever my services were not needed. I just sat and looked out at the green flowering slopes and the distant blue hills of the Bavarian landscape, framed by the meshes of barbed wire. I dreamed longingly, and my thoughts wandered north and northeast, in the direction of my home, but I could only see clouds. The corpses near me, crawling with lice, did not bother me. Only the steps of passing guards could rouse me from my dreams.”

Solitude and silence compel us the way food and sex compel us; they bespeak basic human needs that, if not as physically vital, are psychologically essential.

How much so, and the effect that a non-stop life of crowds and noise may have on us, typically goes completely unrealized, since we never hit pause and step out of that clamorous flow. We have nothing to compare our “normal” lives with.

When writer Patrick Leigh Fermor went to live at a monastery in Europe in order to work on a book, he initially found his adjustment to the new environment difficult and went through a kind of withdrawal period during his first few days there. He felt depressed and oppressed by the quiet and isolation of the abbey, experiencing “a feeling of loneliness and flatness that always accompanies the transition from urban excess to a life of rustic solitude”:

“only by living for a while in a monastery can one quite grasp its staggering difference from the ordinary life that we lead. The two ways of life do not share a single attribute; and the thoughts, ambitions, sounds, light, time and mood that surround the inhabitants of a cloister are not only unlike anything to which one is accustomed, but in some curious way, seem its exact reverse. The period during which normal standards recede and the strange new world becomes reality is slow, and, at first, acutely painful.”

As Fermor acclimated to his silent, solitary surroundings, he discovered he’d been living with a debt of inner exhaustion of which he’d been completely unaware:

“I found that my capacity for sleep was becoming more and more remarkable: till the hours I spent in or on my bed vastly outnumbered the hours I spent awake; and my sleep was so profound that I might have been under the influence of some hypnotic drug . . .

The explanation is simple enough: the desire for talk, movement and nervous expression that I had transported from Paris found, in this silent place, no response or foil, evoked no single echo; after miserably gesticulating for a while in a vacuum, it languished and finally died for lack of any stimulus or nourishment. Then the tremendous accumulation of tiredness, which must be the common property of all our contemporaries, broke loose and swamped everything. No demands, once I had emerged from that flood of sleep, were made upon my nervous energy: there were no automatic drains, such as conversation at meals, small talk, catching trains, or the hundred anxious trivialities that poison everyday life.”

After Fermor’s body had become well-rested, and erased the deep-seated fatigue caused by years of dealing with the “anxious trivialities” of everyday life, he found he needed only five hours of sleep a night, and entered a “new dispensation [that] left nineteen hours a day of absolute and god-like freedom.” Fermor delighted in his new routine that consisted of walks in the countryside, reading, and an astonishing level of productivity in his writing.

Though the transition to silence and solitude when entering the monastery had been hard, Fermor reported that “the unwinding process, after I had left, was ten times worse. The Abbey was at first a graveyard; the outer world seemed afterwards, by contrast, an inferno of noise and vulgarity.

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“It is all very well to insist that man is a “social animal”—the fact is obvious enough. But that is no justification for making him a mere cog in a totalitarian machine—or in a religious one either, for that matter. In actual fact, society depends for its existence on the inviolable personal solitude of its members. Society, to merit its name, must be made up not of numbers, or mechanical units, but of persons. To be a person implies responsibility and freedom, and both these imply a certain interior solitude, a sense of personal integrity, a sense of one’s own reality and of one’s ability to give himself to society—or to refuse that gift.

When men are merely submerged in a mass of impersonal human beings pushed around by automatic forces, they lose their true humanity, their integrity, their ability to love, their capacity for self-determination. When society is made up of men who know no interior solitude it can no longer be held together by love: and consequently it is held together by a violent and abusive authority. But when men are violently deprived of the solitude and freedom which are their due, the society in which they live becomes putrid, it festers with servility, resentment and hate.” —Thomas Merton

Sought passively, out of visceral craving, the simple forms of solitude and silence provide an elemental salve to the psyche; sought deliberately, for the purpose of exercising and edifying the soul, solitude and silence become spiritual disciplines, and their benefits expand to the spirit.

When solitude and silence are cultivated and actively utilized, these disciplines produce many vitalizing and strengthening effects on the soul:

Ability to Listen to God’s and/or Your Own Voice

The world is a noisy, wordy place. There are words coming from your loved ones, words popping up on your smartphone, words blaring from your car radio, words spouting from a television newscaster’s head, and scrolling the bottom of the screen below it. Every nook and cranny of your life is filled with messages about what you should do, think, be. In the thick of this constant din, it can be difficult to hear the voice of God and to identify your own voice. In the midst of so much static, it can be hard to tune into these faintest of frequencies.

In the hush of silent solitude, you find the space needed for undistracted and thus fruitful reflection; you can finally focus on picking up on sacred signals and listening to their urgent broadcasts. The more time you spend alone with God, the better you can hear the “still, small voice” and discern his will. The more you can quiet the cacophony of the crowd, the better able you’ll be to attend to your inner nudgings, and become self-reliant.

We can no more hear these voices in the clatter and crash of our busy lives, than a whisper can be heard across a loud nightclub. Intuition, insight, personal revelation are like fragile bubbles that rise from the depths of your soul; noise erects a wall of sharp spikes that pops them before they ever enter your consciousness.

There may be all kinds of life-changing promptings percolating in your soul right now, and you’ll never even know they exist if you don’t walk away from the crowd and find a quiet space apart.

Discernment and Clarity in Decision-Making 

“For, in the seclusion of a cell—an existence whose quietness is only varied by the silent meals, the solemnity of ritual and long solitary walks in the woods—the troubled waters of the mind grow still and clear, and much that is hidden away and all that clouds it floats to the surface and can be skimmed away; and after a time one reaches a state of peace that is unthought of in the ordinary world.” —Patrick Leigh Fermor

The intuition-releasing quality of silent solitude is particularly vital when you’re trying to make an important decision. Your perspective may feel opaque, like a jar of muddy water that’s been shaken up. The inner stillness created by silence and solitude allows all the distracting details, all the competing interests, all the external “should’s” to settle, revealing a clearer picture of reality and the way to move forward. 

Liberation from Living in Reference to Others

“Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest a while.” —Mark 6:31

Social interaction is like a dance, or a game of chess. We correlate and adjust our behavior according to how others act. We don’t think about it much, because such behavior has become fairly automatic, but every second we’re watching for and responding to others’ cues and deciding how to act based on social norms. We must compel ourselves to listen, to show interest, to check inappropriate comments. We must be proactive, but also defensive: at any time someone may insult, embarrass, confuse, or manipulate us, and we must keep our guard up against these potential attacks. And we must do all this, while making our efforts seem effortless! Even when you’re around those who allow you to “be yourself,” social interaction demands great vigilance and requires a high level of energy and control.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; as we’ll discuss below, engagement with others provides an important balance to solitude. But ceaseless immersion in society is exhausting and drains the health of the soul. We need to break away from the crowd now and again, and find rest from orienting our thoughts and behaviors in reference to other people. We need to be able to let down our defenses and re-establish a self apart from its response to others — to experience a state in which our thoughts and behaviors are purely active, rather than reactive.

Preparation for an Upcoming Challenge

“We require such a solitude as shall hold us to its revelations when we are in the street and in palaces.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson

It’s no coincidence that Jesus chose to begin his ministry by spending forty days alone in the desert. This solitude prepared him for the arduous mission ahead.

Though it needn’t be as long, we can similarly benefit from taking a retreat of silent solitude when we know we’ll soon be facing a physical, mental, emotional, and/or spiritual challenge.

Silence and solitude allow you to engage in prospective decision making. You decide that if X happens, you’re going to do Y.

You can also prepare for the twists of fate in your path by reaffirming your commitment to maintaining a Stoic mindset — rehearsing to yourself the fact that there’s no use in reacting emotionally to things you can’t change, and that you must focus only on that which lies within your control.

By setting your mind beforehand, you enter into a challenge with a stronger sense of moral courage. By getting firm on your convictions before entering the fray, you are less likely to shift them when you rejoin society — less likely to let yourself be controlled by the crowd. You leave the space of silent solitude better prepared to forge your own path, instead of defaulting to the one laid out by others.

As Army Lt. Colonel Michael Erwin puts it: “leading oneself—is the foundation of leading others. And personal leadership comes through solitude.”

Strength to Rejoin the Fight

“One hour of thoughtful solitude may nerve the heart for days of conflict — girding up its armor to meet the most insidious foe.” —Percival

Silence and solitude not only prepare you for embarking on a challenge, they provide vital restoration when you’re struggling through the middle of one.

In battle, troops on the frontline only spend a certain amount of time in combat before they’re rotated to the rear for some R&R. Warriors cannot perform at their best if they’re constantly engaged in the heat of the conflict; fatigue sets in, bad decisions are made, and the fighting force falls apart.

Similarly, each of us is ill served by remaining constantly on the “frontlines” of life. We need to rotate into silence and solitude to maintain our morale, emotional balance, and ability to continue the fight. This respite allows us to re-orient our priorities, re-direct our compass — re-commit to a greater purpose that may have gotten lost in the little details of daily life.

It can be hard to justify pulling back — there’s never a shortage of to-dos to accomplish or people who urgently need our help. But while a retreat may cost time in the short-term, it allows you to perform more effectively and carry on with more endurance in the long-term.

Though hordes of people in need of healing followed Jesus around, and he knew his ministry would be short, still he often “went off to a solitary place” and “withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” Brief respites spent in silence and solitude recharged him to face yet another day of selfless service.

After Theodore Roosevelt lost both his wife and his mother in the same day, he retreated to a ranch in the Dakotas. After many lonely horseback rides through the Badlands, TR was able to recover his emotional balance, re-orient his life, and re-enter public life with Bull Moose-ian gusto.

In silence and solitude, you “sharpen the saw,” restoring the edge you need to continue cutting through life’s problems.

Control of Speech and the Need to Explain Ourselves

“It is not speaking that breaks our silence, but the anxiety to be heard.” —Thomas Merton

Silence, we have said, is not just the quieting of noise which arises from without, but the cessation of that which comes from within. In silence, we put an end to mindless chatter, gossip, and small talk. We let go of the need of expressing our opinions. And perhaps most crucially, we control the need to explain ourselves to others.

We all want to feel like people understand us. We feel a deep need to maintain our reputation, to cultivate our image, to justify ourselves. We want to follow every action with an explanation as to why we did what we did; we want to feel sure that our behavior is being correctly perceived (i.e., interpreted in the best possible light).

We also simply feel the need to use speech (including the “speech” that takes the form of images posted on social media) to prove we’re alive, that we’re doing things; words and photographs serve as third-party corroboration of one’s existence. Such is the excitement your mom gets if your picture shows up in the local paper; she knew you existed, and were wonderful, but now here is public affirmation of this truth! With social media, we all have the chance to issue this kind of “proof of life,” and it can be hard to act in the absence of documentation. If you do something, and you don’t tell anyone, or you don’t take a picture, did it really happen? Are you really real?

This need to furnish explanation and existential evidence is symptomatic of a craving for others’ approval, and a lack of confidence in the value and reality of your soul apart from any external validation.

In silence, you train yourself to resist these compulsions, to be content to let your actions justify themselves. To do what you must, and let people interpret your behavior however they will. To care only for the approval of God, and the approbation of your own conscience.

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Given the fact that solitude and silence seem to scratch a basic human itch, and, when pursued as spiritual disciplines, can provide such an edifying effect on the soul, why is it that the majority of people so seldom experience these states?

When was the last time you found yourself in a space of simple solitude and silence, much less intentionally carved out time to cultivate these practices as disciplines?

If you’re like most people, your life is probably filled with noise (audible and otherwise) from morning ‘til night. As soon as you wake up, you check your phone and turn on music or the radio. When you get in the car to drive to work, on goes the stereo. At the office, you’re never fully disengaged from the people around you, or from your phone — which continues to provide a constant stream of input throughout the day. After work it’s another music or podcast-filled commute to a noise-filled gym, and then home to converse with your family, scroll through your phone, and watch Netflix. Even when you’re not actively attending to it, you may put the radio/television on in the background, to sort of keep you company. Even the shortest stretches of quiet feel empty, uncomfortable.

There are several reasons we so tenaciously cling to noise like this, and ignore the persistent, but easily drowned-out call of silence and solitude:

Discomfort With Boredom 

Given its acute absence of distractions, noise, and stimuli, silent solitude can be experienced as awfully boring. And humans hate boredom. It feels tedious, uncomfortable, and, unnecessary. People will thus do most anything to alleviate it (even giving themselves painful electric shocks).

But it turns out that boredom is in fact necessary to a healthy mind and soul. As Manoush Zomorodi told me in my podcast interview about her book, Bored and Brilliant, research shows that “some incredibly important things” happen when you let your mind wander and space out:

“that is when we do some of our most creative thinking, most original thinking. We take disparate ideas and then push them together and come up with new concepts.

We create a sense of self. It’s self-referential processing, literally creating a coherent sense of ourselves. We do something called theory of mind where we imagine what others are thinking. We develop empathy for them, and we do something . . . called autobiographical memory and planning, which is when we look back at our lives, we take note of the highs and the lows, we build a personal narrative, we take lessons from that, and then look forward. We have something called perspective bias, looking to the future where we build what we imagine our lives could be, and we set ourselves goals, and we break down the steps that we need to take in order to reach those goals. . . .

You could argue that this is what makes humans human, this ability to think of, ‘Who am I? What is my place in the world?’”

Boredom is thus best thought of the way we think of physical exercise: something that may not feel good in the moment, but makes us better and stronger in the long run. Facing and embracing boredom through the practices of solitude and silence is a vital way in which to train the soul.

Fear of Facing the Self Without Distraction

We resist silence and solitude for the same reason we spurn rigorous self-examination: we’re afraid of what these disciplines may reveal about ourselves.

In a space of silent solitude, we must look squarely at our motivations, values, compulsions, loneliness, and disappointments, without the option of averting our gaze with a distraction. That which we typically keep at bay with noise, makes itself known. As the Puritan theologian John Owen observed, “What we are in [solitude], that we are indeed, and no more. They are either the best or the worst of our times, wherein the principle that is predominant in us will show and act itself.”

What do your thoughts turn to in your few quiet moments alone? Do you think of God, your ideals, lofty goals and principles? People who need your help? Or do you think of who’s been doing you wrong lately? Grudges you’re still nursing? Images you wouldn’t want your wife to see? Do you like the man you find when you’re by yourself? If you don’t, you may be eager to flip on the background noise to keep from ever confronting him.

Yet if you don’t engage in this confrontation, nothing about your life will ever change, because you won’t know what aspects of your soul need tending.

Have you ever felt down about something, or restless about how your life was going, and then, instead of sitting with the feeling awhile, started surfing the internet? Lost in the “noise” of the web, you soon forgot what you were anxious about . . . but you also missed an opportunity to better know yourself, and to take action to resolve whatever had created the empty feeling in the first place.

Lack of Motivation in the Absence of an Audience

The producers of reality television programs report that the “stars” of these shows often become depressed after they stop filming. Without cameras following them around, their lives seem less important, meaningful, real. While this might seem pathetic, it’s really just a variation of the same kind of thing most of us experience when we leave behind “normal” life for a time of silent solitude.

In the absence of an audience, life can seem less significant, actions less worthwhile. Our world can seem more flimsy without the kind of third-party affirmation we discussed above. There’s no one grading your report, checking your hours, praising your work. There’s no one to give you a literal or digital thumbs up. As Adele A. Calhoun puts it in her Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, in silent solitude, “The world of recognition, achievement and applause disappears, and we stand squarely before God without props.”

It can be hard to deal with this “nakedness” and the lack of extrinsic motivation that comes from performing in front of others. But we can better find out what thoughts are worth thinking, and what actions are worth taking, when we think and act for no one but ourselves.

The Perception That Silence and Solitude Are Luxuries

Since ancient times, there have been those who have felt that seeking silent solitude is “indulgent” — an attempt to escape the burdens and responsibilities of real life.

But as explored above, these states are better thought of as basic human needs, more akin to sleep than recreation or relaxation. Intermittent times of silence and solitude are essential for people to mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually function at their best in their everyday lives. Certainly, solitude can be used as an escape or hide-out from reality, but it can also facilitate a more effective embrace of it.

We spurn solitude because it feels unforgivably unproductive, yet it creates the grease that keep the productive wheels of our lives turning.

The Feeling That There’s Not Enough Time

This is probably the most common reason people give for not setting apart time for solitude and silence.

Fortunately, this obstacle is in many ways the easiest to deal with and overcome, as its basis is simply rooted in misconceptions about what these disciplines really require.

As we’ll next unpack, they’re far more within reach than typically realized.

 

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“if we possess inward solitude we do not fear being alone, for we know that we are not alone. Neither do we fear being with others, for they do not control us. In the midst of noise and confusion we are settled into a deep inner silence. Whether alone or among people, we always carry with us a portable sanctuary of the heart.” —Richard Foster

Many people think about the disciplines of solitude and silence the way they dream of getting a second home on a lake, or quitting their job, or traveling the world — something enjoyed vicariously in their imagination but not realistically within reach. They feel the allure of these disciplines, but don’t act on them. Silence and solitude remain firmly planted in the “Wouldn’t it be nice if…” category.

Solitude and silence feel like an unattainable adventure fantasy, because people assume (consciously or not) that they must do something similar to Fermor — hole up at a monastery for a weeks-long retreat — to experience these states in a worthwhile way.

When it comes to attaining the level of immersion Fermor experienced, it’s true that it cannot be achieved on the fly. And if you have space in your schedule for taking a long retreat, or even spending a couple days on a solo camping/backpacking trip, you should by all means take advantage of what will likely prove a transformative opportunity.

But if your life is running full throttle right now, and you can’t get away for a weekend much less a week, plenty of possibilities for silence and solitude are still eminently within reach. You don’t have to go full monk to practice these disciplines; rather, you can find your hermitage right at home.

First, consider doing the kind of quarterly retreat Foster suggests:

“Four times a year withdraw for three to four hours for the purpose of reorienting your life goals. This can easily be done in one evening. Stay late at your office or do it at home or find a quiet corner in a public library. Reevaluate your goals and objectives in life. What do you want to have accomplished one year from now? Ten years from now? Our tendency is to overestimate what we can accomplish in one year and underestimate what we can accomplish in ten years. Set realistic goals but be willing to dream, to stretch.”

Everyone, regardless of circumstances, can find the time for these kinds of brief, periodic withdrawals from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

Second, look for simple ways to incorporate pockets of solitude and silence into your daily routine. Often, you don’t need to even change your schedule at all, but simply alter and enhance a few habits you’re already doing, with these guidelines in mind:

  • You don’t need to be completely physically isolated, but the more you are, the better. As discussed above, solitude can be attained even in a crowd, as long as you socially disengage from others. But the more physically alone you can get, the deeper your solitude feels. As the psychologist William James observed, when you’re out on a hike, even seeing and waving at another person in the distance changes your sense of solitude. You don’t need to get miles away from others though; just find a quiet nook or closet in your home, or a park bench that faces away from traffic. Seek isolation by attainable degrees.
  • Turn off all input, especially your phone. There are many moments in your day that are already conducive to being used for silence and solitude . . . if you don’t use these pauses to check your phone or listen to music. As soon as you put in your earbuds or scroll through your apps, you pop the gossamer walls of these potential pockets of quietude.
  • Intentionally consecrate the time. Random moments of silence and solitude are good for the psyche, even when you pass through them unawares. But to really get their full, soul-edifying effect, actively dedicate the time to these disciplines and mindfully commit to utilizing it as a salve to your spirit.

With those guidelines in mind, here are some fruitful places to find solitude and silence in your everyday life:

  • Wake up just 20 minutes before the rest of your family does; or if you’re a night owl, stay up a little longer than everyone else.
  • Treat your shower like a fortress of solitude. It’s the closest most of us get to a monastic cell each day.
  • Do your daily run or workout in silence. I know, your music gets you pumped up and makes your exertions easier. But you’ll be shocked by the number of insights that come to you when you exercise in silence. These bubbles of intuition never get a chance to rise to the surface when they’re pricked by the beats of your tunes. It can feel boring at first to exercise in the absence of noise, but it’s a habit like any other; you’ll get used to it, and then come to enjoy it. Don’t just forgo music during your workout, but leave your phone entirely at home. Otherwise, you’ll bookend your workout by checking it, constricting what could have been an even longer period of silence and solitude. [Note: Silent exercise is more conducive to lower intensity, steady state workouts — when you’re running the same pace for miles and have a chance to really get into the flow — rather than when you’re going high intensity, changing between different exercises, and putting yourself in pain (when your heart rate rises to a certain level, your brain pretty much shuts off, music or no music).]
  • Commute to work in silence. Your car is a mobile, and vastly underutilized, sanctuary. You can achieve complete solitude and silence on every solo drive. A drive without music/radio/podcasts may at first feel insufferably boring, but remember, that’s not such a bad thing. You don’t have to do your whole commute in silence, but consider dedicating a few minutes of it to peace and quiet.
  • If you can’t stand to drive in silence, spend a few minutes sitting quietly in your car once you arrive in the parking lot of your workplace. Enjoy the silence and aloneness before you launch into the noise and stress of your shiftOn your lunch break, leave your phone at the office, and go eat in a quiet spot in a park.
  • On your way home from work, stop by a church that keeps its sanctuary open and sit in a pew for ten minutes. If you don’t know of a church with an open sanctuary, hospitals often have a chapel that’s kept open 24/7.
  • Sit in your closet for five to ten minutes before you go to bed. It sounds weird, but the contained space of a closet feels strangely secluded and offers a cloistered effect out of proportion to the actual setting.

There are also ways to specifically practice the discipline of silence, that can, but don’t necessarily need to involve solitude:

  • Instead of getting out of bed as soon as your alarm goes off, or immediately checking your phone upon waking, lie there for a few minutes in silence; you’ll often receive very potent insights at this time. Extend this silent kickstart to your day by not checking your phone for the next 20-30 minutes.
  • Perform your morning dressing/grooming routine . . . without music/radio/podcasts. As your body stays busy with habitual behaviors like shaving and dressing, your mind will be free to wander.
  • Turn your coffee-making/drinking routine, into a silent, rejuvenating ritual.
  • Eat your meals alone, without your phone or any other kind of input in front of you.
  • Take a “Tech Sabbath” where you don’t use any electronic devices (with a screen) for 24 hours.
  • Take an “Input Sabbath” in which you not only put away your devices, but also abstain from any books, music, or magazines — any human-created input at all.
  • Don’t take a picture for an entire week.
  • Don’t share anything on social media for an entire week.
  • Abstain from speaking for 24 hours.

Once you start looking for them, there all kinds of possibilities for silence and solitude in spare moments that only necessitate small changes in your routine.

Don’t feel like these brief interludes of solitude and silence aren’t real or “authentic” enough. As Donald S. Whitney points out, practicing these disciplines in the form of “minute retreats” trains the soul to be able to go deeper should you get the chance for a more extended withdrawal. If you haven’t been exercising these “muscles” on a regular basis, then you wouldn’t be able to get much out of a longer space of silent solitude — it would just leave you feeling bored and antsy. At the same time, these short spiritual workouts keep your soul in overall good health, achieving effects that are outsized compared to the minimal amount of time they require.

What Do You Do During Times of Solitude and Silence?

Once you’ve carved out a little pocket of solitude and silence, what do you do during that time?

Calhoun aptly describes solitude as a “container discipline,” as it a discipline in and of itself, but it can also be filled with other disciplines. These include the discipline of silence, of course, but others as well:

Silent solitude is also a fruitful time in which to make decisions, especially those with significant consequences. Prepare yourself before you withdraw, by doing as much research about your question as possible. Examine both sides of the issue. Ask for advice from others. This will give the details and data you gather a chance to percolate, consciously and unconsciously, through your mind. Then, during your solitary retreat, you can mentally sift through this predigested intel and watch for what intuitions arise in your soul. For more advice and an insightful case study in making a difficult decision, read this article.

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“Solitude shows us what we should be, society shows us what we are.” —Lord David Cecil

“Do not flee to solitude from the community. Find God first in the community, then He will lead you to solitude.” —Thomas Merton

“It is easy, in the world, to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy, in solitude, to live after your own; but the great man is he who, in the midst of the crowd, keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson

In reading through this extensive enumeration and celebration of the benefits of solitude and silence, one might conclude that these states are superior to that of community and society — that life outside the crowd is more real than life within it; that we are only our true selves when we are by ourselves; and that the more we can get of “authentic” solitude and the less of “artificial” society, the better.

But drawing this conclusion would be a mistake.

While there are some called to a life of complete solitude and silence as a vocation, for the vast majority of people, the benefits of these disciplines are not found in their exclusion of society, but in their contrast with it. The advantage of life lived apart is the alternative set of qualities and perspective it furnishes compared to life lived together. Silence and solitude function best as supplements to society, not as substitutes for it.

Solitude and society are in fact equally important; each acts as a vital enhancement and balancing mechanism for the other.

In solitude we garner new intuitions and ideas; in society, we test and validate them. This public vetting of our private pondering is crucial, for as Koch observes, “Profound visions arrive in solitude—but so do grand delusions.” The crowd may find weaknesses in our ideas, which we then return to solitude to address.

In solitude, we discover new insights; in society, we have the pleasure of expanding on them in conversation with friends. Such discussions beget their own insights, which we can then mull over in solitude. Emerson exalted in this reciprocal dynamic: “The soul environs itself with friends, that it may enter into a grander self-acquaintance or solitude; and it goes alone for a season, that it may exalt its conversation or society.”

In solitude we foster a bond with others that the closeness of physical intimacy actually stymies in some ways. That is, we often appreciate someone more when we’re apart than together. Outside the immediacy of social engagement, the frenzy of response and counter response, we get a chance to reflect on our love for someone, on the qualities they possess that we admire, and who they are to us. For example, I probably feel the greatest love for my children not when we’re together during the day, but when I think about them while lying in bed at night. We then return from the affection-swelling, love-reaffirming state of solitude more eager to re-engage with our loved ones in the flesh.

In solitude we can get a better sense of ourselves; in society we ensure we don’t get too carried away with ourselves. As Emerson put it:

“Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. . . . Let him who is not in community beware of being alone. . . . Each by itself has profound pitfalls and perils. One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation, and despair.”

Society and solitude each represent one half of a cyclic process; each state checks and propels the other in what Henri Nouwen calls a “dynamic unity.” As Koch puts it, “in a variety of different ways, the virtues of solitude find their completion in encounter.”

While doing everything for an audience constricts our thoughts and behaviors, the desire to celebrate with others the wonder and excitement of Truth discovered and Beauty found is not only human, but even virtuous. As Koch writes:

“We forget that, as Anthony Storr once put it, ‘art is communication . . . implicitly or explicitly, the work which [the artist] produces in solitude is aimed at somebody.’

The great bulk of creative work produced in solitude is aimed at an audience . . . refusal to seek this communion is both immoral and self-defeating: the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”

Or as the poet William Cowper put it:

“How sweet, how passing sweet, is solitude! But grant me still a friend in my retreat, Whom I may whisper—solitude is sweet.”

Read the Other Articles in the Series

An Introduction 
Study & Self-Examination 
Solitude & Silence
Simplicity 
Fasting
Gratitude

The Spiritual Disciplines: Study and Self-Examination

 

Welcome back to our series on the spiritual disciplines, which explores exercises that can be used to train the soul. The purposes and practices of these disciplines are approached in such a way that they can be adapted across belief systems.

When you hear the word “study,” you probably associate it with your school days — with poring over textbooks, trying to comprehend new concepts, and memorizing facts.

Close reading, critical analysis, and memorization all have something to do with study as a spiritual discipline as well, but they’re marshaled for a very different purpose.

Rather than trying to understand what a subject means generally, the spiritual studier seeks to know what something means for him.

Rather than cramming for a test — filling one’s head with facts that are quickly regurgitated and just as soon forgotten — the spiritual studier aims to deeply absorb knowledge and make it a permanent part of his soul.

And instead of being limited to the study of written texts, the spiritual studier also examines himself — a related exercise that also constitutes a distinct discipline.

Today we will explore both of these exercises — the study of text and the study of self — as ways of training the soul. As you’ll hopefully come to see, their practice can be far more compelling and rewarding than any of the homework you ever did in school.

 

 

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What Is the Purpose of the Spiritual Discipline of Study?

“The purpose of the Spiritual Disciplines is the total transformation of the person. They aim at replacing old destructive habits of thought with new life-giving habits. Nowhere is this purpose more clearly seen than in the Discipline of study. . . . The mind is renewed by applying it to those things that will transform it.” –Donald S. Whitney

It’s often been said that a man’s thoughts determine his reality.

But how does he change his thoughts in order to change his life?

As we’ve often advocated, one of the best ways of changing your internal life, is by changing your external one: in taking action, your thoughts shift to match the new reality created by your behavior. Indeed, it can often be easier to change from the outside in, than from the inside out.

But that simply throws us back onto another question: How do you decide what actions to take in the first place?

The truth is that thought and action are inextricably tied, and cannot be separated. This is true on a couple of levels.

First, action and thought form a loop, in which each vitally feeds on the other. Study provides insight on what actions to take; experience then tests the real-world validity of these abstract ideas, and informs one’s future study. Action. Reflection. Action. Reflection.

Second, study and thought should not be understood as entirely passive practices, but — especially when engaged in with mindfulness, direction, and deliberation — as actions in and of themselves. Certainly, study is an action in that it produces an equal and opposite reaction; when you apply your mind to something, it shapes you right back.

Richard Foster puts it this way in Celebration of Discipline:

“Study is a specific kind of experience in which through careful attention to reality the mind is enabled to move in a certain direction. . . . [T]he mind will always take on an order conforming to the order upon which it concentrates.

Perhaps we observe a tree or read a book. We see it, feel it, understand it, draw conclusions from it. And as we do, our thought processes take on an order conforming to the order in the tree or book. When this is done with concentration, perception, and repetition, ingrained habits of thought are formed.”

Whatever we pay attention to is our reality.

The spiritual discipline of study takes seriously this fact, calling us to be intentional in choosing the things on which we wish to focus, and challenging us to plumb them more deeply. Because while giving any level of attention to something will change you in return, you can control the profundity of this “ricochet” effect: The more intensely you study something, the more your mind will “conform to the order upon which it concentrates.”

Ultimately, the purpose of the spiritual discipline of study is to take knowledge on the long journey from head to heart — to incorporate it into the marrow of our bones, so that it not only alters our thought patterns, but transforms the contours of our entire self and how we act in the world.

What Things Can Be Spiritually Studied?

Anything, from books to behavior to natural phenomena, can be studied — that is, rigorously focused on and examined.

In terms of spiritual study, nature is one fruitful subject (of which Thoreau offers abundant instruction). As we’ll unpack below, the self is a rich vein for spiritual study as well.

Even the news can be worthwhile fodder for spiritual examination. Foster argues that it behooves us to “meditate upon the events of our time and to seek to perceive their significance,” even arguing that “We have a spiritual obligation to penetrate the inner meaning of events” in order “to gain prophetic perspective.” (Keep in mind that while we typically think of “prophesy” in terms of foretelling, it also concerns interpretation and the gaining of insight.)

Of all the sources of study, written texts are of course the medium we most associate with the practice, and we’ll dedicate the first half of this piece to how one can attend to them more fully.

What Texts Are Worth Studying? 

“The key to every man is his thought. Sturdy and defying though he look, he has a helm which he obeys, which is the idea after which all his facts are classified. He can only be reformed by showing him a new idea which commands his own.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson

Given the purpose of the spiritual discipline of study outlined above, not all books and articles are obviously suited for the task.

Religious scriptures are the most natural source of fodder for spiritual study, and adherents of many faiths will typically say they are the most important thing to apply one’s mind to.

But there are other texts that reward close, spiritually-oriented study as well.

Ralph Waldo Emerson has some excellent recommendations on this front. When he presented a list of what he considered must-read books to an audience of young college students, he suggested studying many of the Western canon’s “secular” classics in order to build the intellect. But he also argued that certain books were vital for the education of the soul.

First among these was that “class of books which are the best: I mean the Bibles of the world, or the sacred books of each nation, which express for each the supreme result of their experience.” Here Emerson listed the Hebrew Bible, the Christian New Testament, the Zoroastrian Desatir, various Buddhist writings, the Confucian Four Books and Five Classics, and the Hindu Vedas, Upanishads, Vishnu Purana, and Bhagavad Gita.

In addition to these more obvious religious texts, however, he also recommended “such other books as have acquired a semi-canonical authority in the world, as expressing the highest sentiment and hope of nations.” These included the Stoic writings of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, the works of Indian author Vishnu Sarma, The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis, and Pascal’s collection of “Thoughts.”

Emerson further commended for closer and more intuitive study anything with “the imaginative element” and a certain “richness” that “leave[s] room for hope and for generous attempts.” That is: “Every good fable, every mythology, every biography out of a religious age, every passage of love, and even philosophy and science, when they proceed from an intellectual integrity, and are not detached and critical.” Such works included:

“The Greek fables, the Persian history, the ‘Younger Edda’ of the Scandinavians, the ‘Chronicle of the Cid,’ the poem of Dante, the Sonnets of Michel Angelo, the English drama of Shakespeare . . . and even the prose of Bacon and Milton, — in our time, the ode of Wordsworth, and the poems and the prose of Goethe.”

“All these books,” Emerson notes, “are the majestic expressions of the universal conscience, and are more to our daily purpose than this year’s almanac or this day’s newspaper.”

Emerson’s list is certainly not meant to be definitive. There are many more texts that “have the imaginative element” and “leave room for hope and for generous attempts” (including Emerson’s own!). Anything that feels “devotional” in nature, that offers elevation and inspiration, that challenges our assumptions, that helps us see life in a different way, that explicates myth and archetype — anything that contains an element of profundity and expands the soul — can be on the table for spiritual study.

The apostle Paul offers a good rule of thumb here: “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things.” Emerson adds another helpful guideline, arguing that texts which bear spiritual study should feel as though “they are for the closet, and to be read on the bended knee”:

“Their communications are not to be given or taken with the lips and the end of the tongue, but out of the glow of the cheek, and with the throbbing heart. Friendship should give and take, solitude and time brood and ripen, heroes absorb and enact them. They are not to be held by letters printed on a page, but are living characters translatable into every tongue and form of life.”

While these general guidelines definitely don’t exclude studying texts we disagree with, if their arguments are forwarded in constructive ways, we would also do well to remember this Nietzschean maxim: “if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.”

What Is the Difference Between Reading and Studying?

The spiritual discipline of study involves more than simple reading, and that difference goes beyond what you read. Just because you’re reading the Bible, doesn’t mean you’re studying it.

Studying differs from reading in the degree of deliberation, immersion, and focus you bring to the text. Reading is about breadth, while study is about depth. To borrow an analogy from The Shallows, reading is like crossing a lake on a jet ski, while studying is like scuba diving below the surface. In the first instance, we want to see as much of the landscape as possible; in the second, we’re deliberately hunting for treasures below.

Spiritually-oriented study also differs from reading (and “secular” study) in regards to your intentions. You’re not just reading for information or entertainment, but for discernment. You’re seeking to know not just what a text means generally, but what it means for you. You’re open to the idea of it influencing your decisions, your ideas about life, and how you think you should act.

Study is essentially disciplined reading. In a time where we’re prone to distraction, and used to scanning and skimming, it requires an inner muscle that’s typically atrophied from disuse.

Which makes it all the more worth exercising.

How Do You Practice the Spiritual Discipline of Study?

“There is no thought in any mind, but it quickly tends to convert itself into a power.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson

The spiritual discipline of study involves the practices typical of any kind of study, alongside a uniquely meditative element. Critical analysis and contemplation work together to allow the practitioner to dive deeper into the text: search and scrutiny pull forth insights, while meditation extracts further marrow, allowing it to be personalized and internalized.

The practices outlined below incorporate both edges of this blade.

General Tips

  • Block distraction. With our screens beckoning, it can be hard to do any “deep work” these days. Consider reading an “analog” copy of the text you want to study. If reading on your phone, use apps that block you from using other apps.
  • Highlight/underline. Studying with a pen or marker in hand keeps you more focused on the text, and heightens your expectations of finding a nugget of wisdom within it.
  • Take notes. Scribble in the margin, or dedicate a notebook to your spiritual studies. Write down your insights and questions as you read.
  • Check cross-references/footnotes. When something confuses you or just catches your attention, check out the cross-references to that scripture verse, the footnote to that sentence.
  • Look up words you don’t know/want to know more about. When reading scriptures, see where else a certain word is used, find out the etymology, and look how its rendered in other translations.
  • Outline the chapter. Or try to write a summary of it in your own words.
  • Think about it yourself first, before you turn to a commentary. See what angles and insights you can come up with on your own, before you reach for the predigested answers of experts. Be self-reliant.
  • Read a passage multiple times. Especially if you feel like you’re not getting it. But even if you think you do get it, you’ll discover new things with each pass, and the more you read it, the more it will become ingrained on your soul.
  • When your mind wanders, gently bring it back to the text. Don’t get frustrated. It happens. 

Take Time to Reflect, Contemplate, and Absorb

Do you ever close a book and shortly thereafter realize you can hardly remember anything of what you just read? The information passed through your mind like water through a sieve.

It’s this phenomenon that leads people to think they’re not good readers, and that the discipline of study isn’t compelling and worthwhile, leaving them as it does so “dry” and unchanged.

In Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, Donald S. Whitney offers the following analogy to explain that the real root of the issue isn’t in the person himself, or the discipline of study, but in how the reader is going about it:

“Imagine that you’ve been outside on an icy day and then come inside where there’s a hot, crackling fire in the fireplace. As you walk toward it, you are very cold. You stretch out your hands to the fire and rub them together briskly during the two seconds it takes to walk past the glow and the warmth. When you reach the other side of the room, you realize, I’m still cold. Is there something wrong with you? Are you just a second-class ‘warmer-upper’? No, the problem isn’t you; it’s your method. You didn’t stay by the fire. If you want to get warm, you have to linger by the fire until it warms your skin, then your muscles, then your bones until you are fully warm.”

If you rapidly pass over one line in a book after another, never pausing to consider what you’ve read, its words never have a chance to warm you. You’ve got to linger by the heat — taking the time to really ponder what you’re studying.

As you read, pay attention to what impresses your mind or arrests your attention.

Is there a line or paragraph that feels profound, that stirs you inside? Does something you read seem to tangibly expand your mind and soul? Reflect on why this sentence or section is provoking that effect. Do you see a signpost pointing in a certain direction? Is there an invitation somewhere in these words?

At the same time, also consider places that make you feel a sense of discomfort or “resistance.” Reflect on why a section subtly repels you. Does it convey something you genuinely disagree with? Or does it remind you of a duty or desire you know you should fulfill but are stubbornly resisting?

Reflecting on how to apply what you’re studying to your life is crucial. How can you put what you’re learning into practice? How should the insights you’re uncovering change how you see your life, the decisions you make, and your habits?

Reflection and contemplation shore up the holes in the sieve of your mind, allowing you to better understand, absorb, and retain the knowledge you study. And the better it’s absorbed, the more it can transform you.

Use Your Imagination to Enter Into the Text

If what you’re reading includes stories, greater engagement with it can be found by using your imagination to immersively “enter” into the text. Place yourself in a scene, and imagine what each of your senses would be experiencing. As Foster suggests in reference to the Gospels, “Smell the sea. Hear the lap of water along the shore. See the crowd. Feel the sun on your head and the hunger in your stomach. Taste the salt in the air. Touch the hem of his garment.”

You might choose not just to imagine yourself as a bystander in a story’s scene, but to participate in it, embodying the roles of certain characters. Alexander Whyte explains this exercise: “with your imagination anointed with holy oil, you again open your New Testament. At one time, you are the publican: at another time, you are the prodigal . . . at another time, you are Mary Magdalene: at another time, Peter in the porch. . . . Till your whole New Testament is all over autobiographic of you.”

By imaginatively immersing yourself in a story, you can notice details and insights that you would have otherwise missed in reading it “clinically.” In an interview he did for On Being, Father James Martin, a Jesuit priest, gave a salient example of what these little discoveries can look like:

“I did a meditation with a group a year or two ago. And it was the multiplication of the loaves and the fishes. And in one of the stories, where Jesus multiplies the loaves and the fishes, and feeds the crowds, there’s a little boy who brings five barley loaves and two fish. And, this one woman in this group I was facilitating, said I never noticed that little boy. She said, I’ve read this story probably hundreds of times, and heard it at Mass, and I never knew he was there. And she said, I spent time just looking at him and noticing how he was able to bring what little he had to Jesus. And that was her insight.”

Though the above examples center on imaginatively entering the stories of the New Testament, this same practice of course works with any stories and myths.

Meditate on a Word or Phrase

When you think about meditation, you likely think of the Eastern tradition, in which the goal is to empty the mind. But there is another version, in which one seeks to fill the mind. Rather than trying to detach the mind from all desire and distraction, you attempt to attach it to something good.

If a word, phrase, or concept “lights up” for you as you read something, pause to meditate on it. Keep repeating it to yourself or out loud. Whitney offers another salient analogy here: if reading quickly is like bobbing a tea bag in and out of a cup of hot water, this kind of meditation is akin to letting the tea bag sit and steep. You let the words percolate in your mind, releasing their insights into your soul.

How long should you engage in this kind of meditation?

In his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius advises that “If one finds . . . in one or two words matter which yields thought, relish, and consolation, one should not be anxious to move forward, even if the whole hour is consumed on what is being found.” 

Memorize Quotes/Verses/Poems

The practice of memorization — once a fundamental of learning — has fallen out of favor in the internet age. We figure if we want to know something, we’ll just Google it. But when something is stored in an external brain, it doesn’t stay at the top of our own; when it’s embedded in the “cloud,” it isn’t ingrained in the marrow of our bones. And it simply isn’t accessible when our devices aren’t available.

Something special happens when you learn something by heart. Think about that phrase — by heart. When you memorize a favorite quote/verse/poem, it becomes a part of you. Your understanding of it deepens. Your conviction of its message strengthens.

Plus, memorizing quotes/verses/poems puts them at our disposal anytime, anywhere. When you’re wrestling with a temptation or hard decision, or struggling to maintain your equanimity in the face of a setback, you can recite a backbone-strengthening line to yourself. When a friend needs advice, you’ll have some powerful words at the ready. (It often helps to put things in your own words, of course, but how often have you read or heard something and thought, “That’s put perfectly — better than I ever could have; I need to remember these words exactly and convey them to my friend”?) When you have downtime — when you’re driving to work, or waiting in line, or lying in bed at night — a treasury of memorized quotes gives your mind somewhere uplifting to go. A strengthening citadel to visit. At all times, and in all places, you can meditate on what you’ve learned by heart, thereby renewing your heart.

Study With Humility and Persistence

Two of things that most lend themselves to success with the spiritual discipline of study are more attitudes than practices: humility and persistence.

You must approach spiritual study with humility in the sense of being open to the idea that what you read may change you. That if you encounter something that feels like Truth with a capital T, you are willing to adjust your thoughts and actions to align with it.

You must also approach study with proper expectations. Though following the methods outlined above will make your study sessions more engaging and increase the chances of your receiving a fresh insight, studying will not always be an ecstatic or moving experience. You will not always get a charge or feel a sense of peace. Often, you won’t feel much at all. But that doesn’t mean that your studying isn’t having an effect; whether perceptibly or not, seeds are being planted that will eventually bear fruit — especially when they’re nourished by other spiritual disciplines.

So stick with spiritual studying, even when you don’t feel like it, trusting that the breakthroughs you seek will eventually come.

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While written texts can be a rich vein for study, so is your own life.

Such a study has proved compelling for thousands of years. One of the most famous maxims of the ancient Greeks was “know thyself.”

Yet for as long as this injunction has existed, it has been widely ignored.

Indeed, most of us, though we may protest to the contrary, don’t really want to know ourselves well. We don’t want the left hand to know what the right is doing; we don’t want to look under the hood and examine our motivations, habits, and behaviors too closely. For doing so can be a rather unsettling affair.

We fear that in acknowledging our weaknesses, our hearts will be pricked to amend them.

We fear that in countenancing our ignored desires, we’ll feel prompted to fulfill them, or sorrowed with regret.

We fear to learn that we are other than who we think we are.

It’s much easier to let our day-to-day lives pass in a blur, to hide some parts of ourselves from other parts, to watch ourselves go by through a hazy, and flattering, lens.

Truly, it takes real courage to honestly confront what is and is not true about yourself — to regularly take a good, hard look in the mirror. But committing to do so, through the spiritual discipline of self-examination, is an eminently worthwhile endeavor. 

What Is the Purpose of the Spiritual Discipline of Self-Examination? 

“The superior man will watch over himself when he is alone. He examines his heart that there may be nothing wrong there, and that he may have no cause of dissatisfaction with himself.” –Confucius

The discipline of self-examination is like a diagnostic test for the soul.

It utilizes self-dialogue for the purpose of self-accountability (and, if one so believes, accountability before God). It tasks you with conducting an internal interview that aims to strip away rationalizations, denials, and blind spots, in order to gain an accurate perspective of who you are, how you act, and what you want. Motivations are scrutinized; biases unearthed; weaknesses confronted. The temptation to cast blame is reined in. Habits are assessed as to whether they are adding to, or detracting from, your life and aims.

The goal of this self-examination is not simply to gain greater self-awareness, but to take action on the “data” that is gathered. Weaknesses are identified in order to be corrected. Worthy desires are recognized so plans can be made for their fulfillment. Bad habits are acknowledged so they can be jettisoned; good ones are noted so they can be enhanced.

The ultimate purpose of self-examination then, is to know thyself, in order to better thyself — to live closer to one’s own ideals and/or divine purpose.

How Do You Practice the Spiritual Discipline of Self-Examination?

 

“The mind must be called to account every day.” –Seneca

“Finding yourself” or “knowing yourself” are vague buzz phrases that sound good in the abstract, but are harder to put into practice. Too often, the process of knowing oneself is left to spontaneous navel-gazing — a thinking process that moves in fits and starts and invariably dissipates into a vaguely emotional, but content-less fog.

For the pursuit of self-knowledge to be effective, it requires concrete structure and direction.

This begins with narrowing the focus of examination. Rather than considering the entirety of one’s life, which is generally too large and unwieldy to get a handle on, you simply review each day. Looking at your daily habits gives you something specific and graspable to audit, and when taken together, these discrete blocks will ultimately reveal macro insights and larger patterns in your life.

In order to keep even these daily reviews from being too vague in result, and to build a collection of consistent data that can be effectively mined for such patterns, it’s best to hone the focus even further, by asking yourself the same set of questions every single day.

The wording and form of these daily self-dialogue questions can vary; below are several examples of the structure they can take.

The Stoic Self-Examination

The spiritual discipline of self-examination goes all the way back to the ancient philosophers of Greece and Rome.

One of its earliest iterations can be found in the Golden Verses of Pythagoras:

“Do not welcome sleep upon your soft eyes
before you have reviewed each of the day’s deeds three times:

‘Where have I transgressed?
What have I accomplished?
What duty have I neglected?’

Beginning from the first one go through them in detail, and then,
If you have brought about worthless things, reprimand yourself,
but if you have achieved good things, be glad.”

Later, the Roman philosopher Quintus Sextius drew on this Pythagorean practice to create his own self-examination, which the Stoic Seneca described and commended in his writings:

“This was Sextius’s practice: when the day was spent and he had retired to his night’s rest, he asked his mind:

Which of your ills did you heal today?
Which vice did you resist?
In what aspect are you better?

Your anger will cease and become more controllable if it knows that every day it must come before a judge . . .

I exercise this jurisdiction daily and plead my case before myself. When the light has been removed and my wife has fallen silent, aware of this habit that’s now mine, I examine my entire day and go back over what I’ve done and said, hiding nothing from myself, passing nothing by.”

The Jesuit Examen

“Twice a day, or at least once, make your particular examens. Be careful never to omit them. So live as to make more account of your own good conscience than you do of those of others; for he who is not good in regard to himself, how can he be good in regard to others?” –St. Francis Xavier

As part of his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius created a form of prayer known as the “examen” (often today called the “examination of consciousness”), that is done at least once a day — typically in the evening.

Both divine petition and personal audit, Ignatius formulated the examen as a five-point process:

“The First Point is to give thanks to God our Lord for the benefits I have received. The Second is to ask grace to know my sins and rid myself of them. The Third is to ask an account of my soul from the hour of rising to the present examen, hour by hour or period by period; first as to thoughts, then words, then deeds, in the same order as was given for the particular examination. The Fourth is to ask pardon of God our Lord for my faults. The Fifth is to resolve, with his grace, to amend them. Close with an Our Father.”

In summary, the steps of the examen are: 1) express gratitude, 2) acknowledge your sins, 3) review how you spent your time since the last examen, 4), ask for forgiveness for your sins, 5) ask for grace to amend them.

In The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, Fr. Martin notes that it’s okay to tweak the examen to your own needs. For example, he personally finds it “hard to identify sinfulness without first reviewing the day” and “easier to ask for forgiveness after thinking about my sins.” So in doing his examen, he rearranges the steps a bit, so that it goes like this:

“1. Gratitude: Recall anything from the day for which you are especially grateful, and give thanks.

2. Review: Recall the events of the day, from start to finish, noticing where you felt God’s presence, and where you accepted or turned away from any invitations to grow in love.

3. Sorrow: Recall any actions for which you are sorry.

4. Forgiveness: Ask for God’s forgiveness. Decide whether you want to reconcile with anyone you have hurt.

5. Grace: Ask God for the grace you need for the next day and an ability to see God’s presence more clearly.”

Some notes on a few of these steps:

First, when you express gratitude, don’t just think of the big, obvious things that happened during the day, but also the small, subtle, surprising things that made you smile or warmed your heart.

Second, Fr. Martin calls the review step “the heart of the prayer,” and offers helpful detail as to what it consists of:

“Basically you ask, ‘What happened today?’ Think of it as a movie playing in your head. Push the Play button and run through your day, from start to finish, from your rising in the morning to preparing to go to bed at night. Notice what made you happy, what made you stressed, what confused you, what helped you be more loving. Recall everything: sights, sounds, feelings, tastes, textures, conversations. Thoughts, words, and deeds, as Ignatius says.”

While you think you know how your day went, the truth is that you hardly examine, and thus understand, anything about it at all. It’s just a blur. By really taking the time to review everything you did/felt/experienced each day, you can learn so much more about how you use (or don’t use) your time and how your schedule flows (or doesn’t). You’ll find that certain themes — certain hopes, problems, issues, feelings, doubts, and frustrations — repeat themselves. You can begin to discern patterns you otherwise never would have recognized: highs and lows that occur at roughly the same times each day; bad habits that are having a domino effect that sabotages your goals; moments that bring you joy that could be further extended.

To better uncover these data points during the review segment of the examen, consider asking yourself these additional questions suggested in the Spiritual Disciplines Handbook:

  • When today did I have the deepest sense of connection with God, others, and myself? When today did I have the least sense of connection?
  • What was the most life-giving part of my day? What was the most life-thwarting part of my day?
  • Where was I aware of living out of the fruit of the Spirit? Where was there an absence of the fruit of the Spirit?
  • What activity gave me the greatest high? Which one made me feel low?

As insights and patterns emerge from your daily reviews, you’ll need to decide how best to attend to them — to solidify the positive, and turn around the negative.

Third, when you think of your mistakes, identify not just the sins of commission — things you actively did wrong — but those of omission: those things you could have done but didn’t — the times you could have bothered, but decided not to. Most of us aren’t committing grievous sins on a day-to-day basis, but we all have places where we could have done better, where we “turned away from any invitations to grow in love.” Did you lose your temper with your children? Did you only half-listen when a friend engaged you in conversation? Did you fail to give due credit to a co-worker?

Finally, Fr. Martin notes that “The daily examen is of special help to seekers, agnostics, and atheists,” who can easily alter the steps and turn it into a “prayer of awareness”:

“The first step is to be consciously aware of yourself and your surroundings. The second step is to remember what you’re grateful for. The third is the review of the day. The fourth step, asking for forgiveness, could be a decision to reconcile with someone you have hurt. And the fifth is to prepare yourself to be aware for the next day.”

Whatever exact form your examen takes, write it down on a notecard or in a journal and place it beside your bed. At night, turn off your phone, pick up the card, and work your way through the five steps. Perform the exercise mentally, or if you desire, journal your reflections.

As you engage in the examen consistently, you’ll soon begin to live with more gratitude, identify what habits bring life or death to your soul, and awake each morning committed to doing better than you did the day before. 

Benjamin Franklin’s Virtue Chart

While the iconoclastic Benjamin Franklin wasn’t much for organized religion and theological dogma, he did, his biographer Walter Isaacson notes, have an absolute “passion for virtue.” And he ardently believed it was nearly impossible to cultivate that virtue without some kind of structure by which to train the soul.

Franklin personally sought that structure by creating his own system of self-examination.

Committed to the idea of continual moral improvement from a young age, when he was twenty years old he conceived of a program that would keep him accountable in his quest to cultivate virtuous habits. Ever the ethical pragmatist, he drew up a list of 13 virtues he wished to develop:

  1. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
  2. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
  3. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
  4. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
  5. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
  6. Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
  7. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
  8. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
  9. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
  10. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation.
  11. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
  12. Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.
  13. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

Franklin also created a chart on which to keep track of his progress in living each of these 13 virtues. Each week he would specifically focus on one virtue while also keeping track of the others.

When Franklin failed to live up to the virtues on a particular day, he would place a mark on the chart. When he first started out on his program, he found himself putting marks in the book more often than he wanted. But as time went by, he saw the marks diminish.

After a week of examining his particular adherence to one of the virtues, Franklin would then move on to the next, eventually going through four cycles of each of the virtues in a single year.

In addition to tracking his virtuous habits each day, Franklin also asked himself two questions to focus his mind on doing good in the world.

In the morning, he would ask himself:

What good shall I do this day?

This reflection helped Franklin focus on things he could do to serve his fellow man and benefit his society as he went about his daily routine.

Then in the evening, he would return to the question by asking himself:

What good have I done today?

Franklin examined how he had spent his hours and whether he had done the good deeds he had planned on doing, as well as if he had taken action on unforeseen opportunities to lend others a helping hand.

If you’re interested in following Franklin’s self-improvement/examination program, we’ve re-created his virtue charts and good deed prompts as a leather-bound journal.

The ultimate goal of Franklin’s two forms of self-examination — his virtue tracking and good deed prompts — was to obtain to “moral perfection.” And though he fell short of this lofty ambition, he still felt the effort had greatly improved his life and been thoroughly worthwhile: 

“Tho’ I never arrived at the perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell far short of it, yet I was, by the endeavour, a better and a happier man than I otherwise should have been if I had not attempted it.”

Putting the Discipline of Self-Examination Into Practice

Did one of the self-examination methods outlined above resonate with you? Adopt it as the form of your personal self-examination practice. Or create your own. You can readily come up with your own list of daily self-dialogue questions, or a list of virtue/good deeds you wish to accomplish each day.

Whatever form of self-examination you choose, use it consistently. It’s easy to say you’ll contemplate your day and your actions each night in the absence of any structure, but your mind will wander, and then you’ll fall asleep.

Life usually doesn’t have big signposts and pivot points; rather it moves in tiny dribs and drabs. If you don’t have a way to keep track of them, it becomes difficult to know if you’re regressing or progressing.

Having a set list of questions to review will focus your intentions, helping you recognize where you’re struggling, where you’re doing well, and patterns in your habits.

By forcing you to stop hiding yourself from yourself, and to confront the specifics of how you’re really doing, you can start taking action to address your weaknesses, facilitate your strengths, and get a little better every day.

Read the Other Articles in the Series

An Introduction 
Study & Self-Examination 
Solitude & Silence
Simplicity 
Fasting
Gratitude

An Introduction to the Spiritual Disciplines

an introduction to the spiritual disciplines

“The meaning of earthly existence is not, as we have grown used to thinking, in prosperity, but in the development of the soul.” —Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Last month we explored the profound parallels between training the physical body and training the spiritual soul: both “physiques” atrophy from lack of use; increase in strength and agility when exercised; require pain, effort, weight, and opposition to grow; and can only be honed through consistent, continual practice.

Everyone is familiar with the kinds of exercises employed in training the body: calisthenics, running, biking, lifting weights, stretching, plyometrics, etc.

But what are the “barbells” and “push-ups” that build spiritual strength? What exercises can be used to train the soul?

Over the next several months, we will be running a series of articles on just these exercises — known as spiritual disciplines — and today offer a general introduction to what they’re all about.

What Are Spiritual Disciplines?

“The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people.” —Richard J. Foster

Spiritual disciplines are habits, practices, and experiences that are designed to develop, grow, and strengthen certain qualities of spirit — to build the “muscles” of one’s character and expand the breadth of one’s inner life. They structure the “workouts” which train the soul. Some spiritual disciplines are personal, inward exercises that are practiced alone; others require interpersonal relationships and are practiced in community.

Throughout time, many philosophers, theologians, and writers have proposed a number of practices that might be considered spiritual disciplines. These include:

  • Meditation
  • Prayer
  • Fasting
  • Simplicity
  • Fellowship
  • Journaling
  • Chastity
  • Stewardship
  • Submission/Obedience
  • Study
  • Evangelism
  • Contemplation
  • Confession
  • Solitude
  • Gratitude
  • Self-Examination
  • Silence
  • Celebration

We have chosen eight of these spiritual disciplines as being the most vital for men in the modern day and inclusive of varying belief systems, and which incorporate several of the other disciplines within them. This series will explore these eight as four complementary pairs:

  • Study and Self-Examination
  • Silence and Solitude
  • Simplicity and Fasting
  • Gratitude and Service

Are the Spiritual Disciplines for Me?

“Perhaps somewhere in the subterranean chambers of your life you have heard the call to deeper, fuller living. You have become weary of frothy experiences and shallow teaching. Every now and then you have caught glimpses, hints of something more than you have known. Inwardly you long to launch out into the deep.” —Richard J. Foster

The spiritual disciplines grew out of the early Orthodox and Catholic churches, particularly their monastic orders, with their emphasis on ascetic practices. But they’ve been widely adopted by Protestant denominations as well.

Though the idea of “spiritual disciplines,” defined and categorized as such, is associated with the Christian tradition, many of the disciplines themselves are common to all the world’s religions, as well as philosophical schools like Stoicism. They can be practiced not only by men of every faith tradition, but also by those who espouse none at all.

Theists will see the soul they are aiming to train as an eternally-created essence; non-theists may simply see it as the mind’s higher capacity or the human will. Those with different belief systems will also see the reasons for and the aims of the spiritual disciplines in different ways. But there is much overlap for all, especially when it comes to the “mechanics” of the practices. This series will thus seek to describe the potential purposes, benefits, and applications of the disciplines in an inclusive, practical, and yet still meaningful way.

So, if there’s something about having a deeper, richer inner life that appeals, then the spiritual disciplines (and this series) is for you.

If there’s something that stirs inside whenever you hear words like solitude, silence, simplicity, the spiritual disciplines are for you.

If you’re nagged by a restless feeling that there must be more to life than your day-to-day existence, the spiritual disciplines are for you.

If there’s a part of you that feels strangely attracted to a life of ascetic monasticism — that yearns to become something of a warrior monk, though you don’t actually want to go off and live in a cloister — the spiritual disciplines are most definitely for you.

What Are the Purposes of the Spiritual Disciplines?

“Ask me not where I live and what I like to eat. Ask me what I am living for and what I think is keeping me from living fully for that.” —Thomas Merton

There is very little meaning in physical exercises themselves — jumping jacks or squats are just motions and muscle contractions; their purpose is in what they produce: fitness and strength. Likewise, spiritual exercises are means to ends. Their meaning is not found in the practices themselves, but in the strength and growth they create in the soul.

The nature of this strength takes many forms (which are developed to greater and lesser degrees, depending on the particular spiritual discipline practiced), but generally include an increase in one’s ability to:

  • Delay gratification
  • Receive insight
  • Hear God’s voice/one’s inner voice
  • Make better decisions
  • Remain centered and unaffected by external events
  • Demonstrate moral courage
  • Detach from distractions
  • Feel inner peace
  • Behave unselfishly
  • Act with practical wisdom
  • Follow one’s own course
  • Endure hardship
  • Forge good habits
  • Conquer the worst parts of yourself

If you start any kind of physical exercise program, you’ll enhance your health. But people who are most successful in making exercise a habit, who stick with a program and see real results — significant transformations in their physical aptitudes and physique — are those who have a higher purpose beyond simply “better health.” Without this kind of higher purpose — a desire to hit certain PRs, run a particular race, be around for one’s children — the motivation required to complete regular workouts is easily overcome by the entropy and busyness of daily life. Without a more animating aim, physical exercise can seem less important — pointless drudgery that’s not worth the time and effort. With a higher purpose, workouts still require effort, but the participant pushes himself harder, and with more relish, and even joy.

Likewise, doing the spiritual disciplines out of a simple desire to improve the general health of the soul will certainly garner something of the intended effect. But this effect will be much smaller, and the disciplines far harder to stick with, than if they were approached with a higher purpose in mind. It’s hard enough to find time in one’s day for such habits when you’re clear on their raison d’etre. Without one, activities that require discipline will assuredly fall victim to those that don’t, like smartphone surfing and Netflix watching.

For many adherents of the Abrahamic religions, in which God has required his followers to practice good works, the higher purpose for the spiritual disciplines is obvious: to follow this command and live a life that’s less sinful and more holy.

For Christians who believe in salvation by grace alone, the spiritual disciplines are not a way to earn one’s way to heaven, but rather are the means by which to put oneself in position to more fully receive that grace. As Richard J. Foster puts it in Celebration of Discipline:

“The Disciplines allow us to place ourselves before God so that he can transform us . . . The inner righteousness we seek is not something that is poured on our heads. God has ordained the Disciplines of the spiritual life as the means by which we place ourselves where he can bless us.

In this regard it would be proper to speak of ‘the path of disciplined grace.’ It is ‘grace’ because it is free; it is ‘disciplined’ because there is something for us to do.”

Or as Donald S. Whitney writes: “Although God will grant Christlikeness to us when Jesus returns, until then He intends for us to grow toward it. We aren’t merely to wait for holiness; we’re to pursue it.”

For an atheist or agnostic, their higher purpose may be to live a fully flourishing life: to be able to know oneself, enjoy healthy relationships, find meaning in work, and become a happier, more mindful, and all-around better friend, husband, father, and man.

One particularly compelling purpose for practicing the spiritual disciplines, that nearly all might agree on, is this: learning how to properly “order our loves.”

In his writings, Saint Augustine argues that virtue is essentially “rightly ordered love,” and that sin, conversely, is disordered love:

“But living a just and holy life requires one to be capable of an objective and impartial evaluation of things: to love things, that is to say, in the right order, so that you do not love what is not to be loved, or fail to love what is to be loved, or have a greater love for what should be loved less, or an equal love for things that should be loved less or more, or a lesser or greater love for things that should be loved equally.”

If you say God is the thing you love most in life, but you spend two hours each day on social media, and five minutes reading your Bible, you really love Instagram more than God. If you say you love your family more than your job, but you keep saying yes to unnecessary overtime hours at work, you really love work more than your family. If you say you love the ideal of friendship, but you snub a nerdy acquaintance to look cooler in front of your buddies, you really love popularity more than friendship. Your loves are out of order.

The purpose of training the soul, of practicing the spiritual disciplines, is to align them aright.

Saint Ignatius is famous for writing a book commonly known as The Spiritual Exercises. But its original title was: Spiritual Exercises to Overcome Oneself, and to Order One’s Life, Without Reaching a Decision Though Some Disordered Affection.

That’s a mouthful, but perhaps the best summation of the ultimate purpose of the spiritual disciplines.

Shouldn’t Spirituality Be Spontaneous?

“Do you have less respect for your own nature than the engraver does for engraving, the dancer for dance, the miser for money or the social climber for status? When they’re really possessed by what they do, they’d rather stop eating and sleeping than give up practicing their arts.” —Marcus Aurelius

It’s popular these days for people to say they are “spiritual but not religious.” What this usually means is that they still see a deeper, even transcendent meaning in life, but don’t want their views and pursuit of it to hemmed in by institutional rules and calcified dogmas, doctrines, and traditions. Personal spirituality, the thinking goes, should be completely untrammeled and free, left to roam and explore wherever an individual wishes. Spirituality should be spontaneous.

While this idea sounds great in theory, it works far poorer in reality. The paradox of not just spirituality, but all creative endeavors, is that the more an individual disciplines his talents and yearnings, the freer and more spontaneous he can be.

Someone who is just starting to learn to play an instrument can only haltingly play with sheet music at hand, and then only a very limited number of basic tunes. A musician who has spent thousands of hours mastering his instrument, however, can play an astonishing range of soaring, beautiful songs, and can improvise his own music. Discipline has liberated his art.

Just like a budding musician must practice the scales before playing a classical concerto, you must practice spiritual fundamentals if you wish your soul to become capable of producing great beauty, of improvising the right moral decisions, at the right times, for the right reasons. Joy awaits anyone who seeks to master a craft, including the craft of the soul. The Latin root of “discipline” in fact traces to words like “instruction” and “knowledge” and that’s what the spiritual disciplines essentially are: courses of learning. The more your soul-knowledge grows, the freer you become: free from addiction to superficial pleasures, free from self-centeredness, free from following the enticements of advertising and other people’s “should’s,” free from the mindless distractions and appetites that sabotage our higher goals — free from the tyranny of the worst parts of ourselves.

Here’s another analogy. Author John Guest compares “The ‘spontaneous’ person who shrugs off the need for discipline” to “the farmer who went out to gather the eggs”:

“As he walked across the farmyard toward the hen house, he noticed the pump was leaking. So he stopped to fix it. It needed a new washer, so he set off to the barn to get one. But on the way he saw that the hayloft needed straightening, so he went to fetch the pitchfork. Hanging next to the pitchfork was a broom with a broken handle. ‘I must make a note to myself to buy a broom handle the next time I get to town,’ he thought. . . .

By now it is clear that the farmer is not going to get his eggs gathered, nor is he likely to accomplish anything else he sets out to do. He is utterly, gloriously spontaneous, but he is hardly free. He is, if anything, a prisoner to his unbridled spontaneity. The fact of the matter is that discipline is the only way to freedom; it is the necessary context for spontaneity.”

Spirituality without discipline moves in hapless fits and starts; it is sporadic, dependent on fluctuating feelings and external circumstances. It requires little to no effort, but also produces little to no sustained growth, and thus little to no fruit.

This is as true for the “spiritual but not religious” as for those who do consider themselves religious, or at least nominally adopt the trappings of a faith. They may go to church every week, maybe even pray every night, but their spirituality has been almost completely stagnant for years. They go through the motions, but don’t really discipline themselves, and thus only produce the barest of fruit. They’re like the people above who “work out” without real purpose, and without putting forth much effort. They may be getting a tad healthier, but their physiques look exactly the same as they did two years ago when they first joined the gym.

For the soul to strengthen, it has to be trained in a consistent, deliberate way. Just like your physical muscles, it needs something to push against, it needs resistance. If you really want your spirit to be able to soar to adventurous heights and explore the profoundest of depths, if you really want it to possess power — if you really want it to be free — it paradoxically needs some structure. It needs discipline.

How Should I Approach the Spiritual Disciplines?

“Spiritual discipline, then, is developing soul reflexes so that we know how to live. We discipline ourselves to develop soul memory in normal times so that we’ll be equipped for the times of high demand or deep crisis.” —Douglas Rumford

You’re likely no stranger to discipline in at least one, and probably several areas of your life. You discipline yourself to graduate from college. You discipline yourself to make it on a sports team. You discipline yourself to learn to play an instrument, or to speak a foreign language. You discipline yourself to go to the gym every day. You discipline yourself to get ahead at work. You know that in order to master a course of study, lose weight, and get to where you want to be in life, you’re going to have to put forth effort. You’re going to have to dedicate time to the pursuit. You’re going to have to sacrifice.

You may never have thought much about disciplining yourself spiritually, however. But the same immutable laws that underlie all other pursuits in life, underlie the growth and development of your soul.

You can’t hope that circumstances will somehow naturally shape its course and hone its strength. You can’t only attend to the soul as your feelings dictate.

The decision to train the soul must be intentionally chosen, and then consistently practiced. Persistence is essential.

Just like you (hopefully) carve out time each day to exercise your body, you must make the spiritual disciplines a nearly inalterable part of your schedule.

Just as when you decide to go to the gym, even when you don’t feel like it, you invariably feel awesome by the end of your workout, rather than waiting to feel like working on your soul, you must work on it anyway, knowing the feelings will follow.

Just like a single workout at the start of the month won’t sustain your strength for the rest of it, you must exercise your soul on a regular basis.

And just like a novice weightlifter needs to learn the best exercises for building strength, and how to perform them for maximum effectiveness, you must learn the time-tested spiritual disciplines that best train and grow the soul.

To those specific disciplines, we will turn in the months to come.

Read the Other Articles in the Series

An Introduction 
Study & Self-Examination 
Solitude & Silence
Simplicity 
Fasting
Gratitude

Training the Soul

training the soul greek statue and monk side by side

“It is circumstances (difficulties) which show what men are. Therefore when a difficulty falls upon you, remember that God, like a trainer of wrestlers, has matched you with a rough young man. For what purpose? you may say. Why that you may become an Olympic conqueror; but it is not accomplished without sweat. In my opinion no man has had a more profitable difficulty than you have had, if you choose to make use of it as an athlete would deal with a young antagonist.” —Epictetus

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air.” —Corinthians 9:24-26

The ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus and the apostle Paul — though their worldviews differed — both used the metaphor of athletic contests to explain the way a man was to struggle against weakness, erroneous beliefs, and all lower impulses, in order to win the prize of higher virtue.

They weren’t unique in deploying this analogy. Many early sages and saints also likened man’s attempt to conquer himself to physical exercise and the games of the sporting arena. They called their readers to become Stoic athletes, Christian athletes — spiritual athletes.

These philosophers and prophets understood that it was important not only to train the body, but also to train the soul.

The Greek word for training used by both Epictetus and St. Paul — áskēsis — was orginally associated with the physical training of athletes and soldiers, but later came to be used to describe any rigorous, discplined program of training, including the spiritual struggle for virtue.

This paradigm, in which practicing virtue is exercise; confronting personal weakness is contest, has not entirely disappeared from modern culture, but has become fainter and somewhat lost to us. It is partly for this reason that virtue and the spiritual life have come to be seen as “soft” and effeminate pursuits, despite the fact that the Latin word from which virtue derives — vir — actually means “manliness.”

Today, drawing on both the Christian and Stoic traditions (although adherence to either is not required to find usefulness in the underlying principles) we issue a wholehearted call to revive the idea of training the soul, and embrace it for the very meaningful, very “muscular” contest it is.

How Training the Soul Is Like Training the Body

“let the man who is rich in a worldly sense adopt in his own case the same considerations as apply to athletes. For the athlete who has given up the hope of being able to conquer, and to obtain the garlands, does not even give in his name for the contest; while the one who has conceived this hope in his mind, but does not submit to the fitting labors and diet and exercises, continues ungarlanded, and fails to gain what he hoped for.

In the same way let not a man who is clothed in this earthly covering withdraw his name altogether from the Savior’s contests, if at least he is faithful, and perceives the greatness of God’s kindness to man; and again, if he refuses exercise and contest, let him not hope to share in the garlands of incorruption without the dust and sweat of the arena; but let him at once submit himself to the word as trainer, and to Christ as judge of the contests; let his food and his apportioned drink be the new covenant of the Lord, let his exercises be the commandments, let his gracefulness and adornment be good dispositions, love, faith, hope, knowledge of truth, gentleness, goodness of heart, dignity; so that, when the last trumpet sounds for the race and the departure hence, passing out of this life as out of a race-course, he may stand with a good conscience before the president, acknowledged to be worthy of the heavenly home, into which he passes up with garlands and proclamations of angelic heralds.” —Clement of Alexandria

Philosophers and theologians have debated and expounded on the nature of the soul for thousands of years, and we can’t hope to provide a definitive definition of it here. But for the purposes of this article, let’s call the soul that part of a man’s make-up that desires higher order aims over lower order impulses. It’s the thing that seeks that which is life-giving, rather than life-deadening. It’s your moral compass, your attraction to doing noble deeds and choosing the right. It’s the capacity to reach beyond the self in order to serve others.

Your soul is your spiritual center, and, traditionally, your eternal essence. However, a belief in the immortality of the soul isn’t necessary for a belief in the possibility of actively training it; even if one sees it simply as the part of the psyche that’s more human and advanced, and less primitive and reptilian, the protocols for exercising it still very much apply.

No matter how exactly you view the soul, it lends itself to being seen as having a spiritual “physique” just as real and readily shapeable as your tangible one. The spirit, like the body, has muscles that must be regularly exercised in order to maintain good health, perform optimally in everyday tasks, and come out the victor in the occasional high-stakes contest. In both cases, you are given these physiques in a raw, impressionable form; you can either let them be molded by external forces, or intentionally sculpt them into the shape you desire.

Let us delve deeper into the parallels that exist between training the body and training the soul:

Physical and Spiritual Strength Atrophy Without Use

All matter — physical and spiritual alike — tends towards the path of least resistance. Without intentional effort to move and exercise our fleshy bodies, we become encased in layers of fat, get winded from light activity, and cannot pick up heavy objects. Muscles get tight; joints get creaky. Should an emergency befall us, we’re unable to flee or fight the danger. If forced to compete in a race or game, we would face embarrassing failure.

In the same way, ignoring one’s soul leads to the accumulation of spiritual flab. Our moral muscles atrophy, and we give in to sin and weakness more easily. We cannot put off temporary pleasures to achieve lasting goals. In wrestling with temptation or a heavy moral issue, we fatigue easily, and make a choice of convenience rather than principle. Or, we choose not to engage in the wrestle at all, defaulting to whatever direction our fluctuating feelings take us, or referring to a rote rule or bureaucratic expediency that may not be the best solution to the particular problem at hand. We lose our moral agility — our capacity to exercise practical wisdom and do the right thing, at the right time, for the right reason.

Of course, the converse of the above is just as true regarding both our physical and spiritual physiques. Muscles that get used, get stronger. Get more agile. And allow you to do more and be more . . .

Physical and Spiritual Strength Widens Your Freedom and Field of Action

A flabby, atrophied physical physique circumscribes your choices. This is true as a practical matter: You can’t play with your kids because you’re too tired; you can’t climb a mountain with your friends because you’re too weak; you can’t lift a certain weight, even if you wanted to.

A flabby, atrophied spiritual physique limits your ability to autonomously make choices at all. If you want to be faithful to your girlfriend, but hook up with an old flame, your lust is in control, not you. If you want to lose weight, but can’t stop overeating, you’re taking your marching orders from your belly, rather than your higher aims. If you want to be loving to your children, but keep losing your temper, your anger is calling the shots, not your soul. If your moods and reactions are determined by external events, then you’re being acted upon, rather than acting. You are not a free moral agent.

In training the soul, you strengthen your self-control: you gain the ability to harness your energies towards deliberately chosen ends, to choose long-term ideals over short-term impulses, to decide how you will act, regardless of the circumstances. You become master, rather than slave. As a consequence, your options increase; your potential field of action widens.

Or as former Navy SEAL Jocko Willink succinctly puts it: “Discipline equals freedom.”

Physical and Spiritual Strength Require Weight and Opposition in Order to Grow 

“Souls are like athletes that need opponents worthy of them, if they are to be tried and extended and pushed to the full use of their powers.” —Thomas Merton

“Good fortune comes to common men and even to those of inferior talent; but only a great man is able to triumph over disasters and terrors afflicting mortal life. It is true that to be always happy and to pass through life without any mental distress is to lack knowledge of one half of human nature. You are a great man: but on what do I base this if Fortune denies you the opportunity to demonstrate your worth? You have entered the lists at the Olympic Games, but you are the only competitor: you win the crown, but the victory is not yours; I congratulate you, but not as a brave man, rather as one who has gained the office of consul or praetor: it is your personal standing that has been enhanced. I can make the same point also to a good man, if no more difficult circumstance has given him the chance to show his mental strength: ‘You are unfortunate in my judgement, for you have never been unfortunate. You have passed through life with no antagonist to face you; no one will know what you are capable of, not even you yourself.’ For a man needs to be put to the test if he is to gain self-knowledge; only by trying does he learn what his capacities are.” —Seneca

Physical training is essentially the act of intentionally breaking down the body with stress in order that it can be rebuilt stronger and better than before. Without this stress, no improvement can take place.

In weightlifting, the stressor is the weight to be lifted. A lifter essentially pits himself against gravity as he tries to move a barbell off the floor, or raise himself up when it’s sitting on his shoulders. Gravity is the opponent to be overcome; the lifter must struggle to resist its force — hence the name, “resistance training.”

Just as the body needs to confront an opposing force in order to grow, so does the soul. In this case, the antagonists are internal: our sins and weaknesses. It’s Soul vs. Lust. Soul vs. Selfishness. Soul vs. Self-Pity. Soul vs. Envy. It’s a contest between the best parts of ourselves and the worst.

Our souls also grapple with external combatants in the form of events and circumstances beyond our control — hardships and difficulties we are forced to face. The mere existence of these obstacles does not necessarily strengthen the soul or incur automatic benefits, however. Rather, the attitude we take towards hardships matters, and determines their effect.

In his Discourses, Epictetus responds to a hypothetical student who wants to know if he is making progress in following the Stoic way. The philosopher says that if he were talking to an athlete who had the same question, he would ask the athlete to show him his shoulders. If the athlete instead responded by showing the weights he had been lifting, Epictetus says he would reply that he didn’t ask to see the athlete’s weights, but his shoulders. What’s important is not that a man has access to gym equipment, but that he is using it properly, and the proof of this is in the embodied pudding — in the size and strength of his muscles.

In the same way, if you want to know if the soul is improving, you cannot look to the mere presence of difficulties in your life, but how you are facing them, using them. You can know if you’re making progress by the ways you can flex your spiritual muscles, “how you exercise pursuit and avoidance, desire and aversion, how you design and purpose and prepare yourself, whether conformably to nature or not.”

What emerges from the struggle against inner and outer demons, from the stress of pushing back against our flaws and frailties, is the development of character. The more we resist the gravitational force of our appetites, the stronger and more iron-clad our character becomes.

Physical and Spiritual Strength Require Effort, and Pain

“Where then is progress? If any of you, withdrawing himself from externals, turns to his own will to exercise it and to improve it by labor, so as to make it conformable to nature, elevated, free, unrestrained, unimpeded, faithful, modest; and if he has learned that he who desires or avoids the things which are not in his power can neither be faithful nor free, but of necessity he must change with them and be tossed about with them as in a tempest, and of necessity must subject himself to others who have the power to procure or prevent what he desires or would avoid; finally, when he rises in the morning, if he observes and keeps these rules, bathes as a man of fidelity, eats as a modest man; in like manner, if in every matter that occurs he works out his chief principles as the runner does with reference to running . . . this is the man who truly makes progress.” —Epictetus

Fitness is an encompassing lifestyle choice. It takes time. It takes effort. It takes dedication. You’ve got to structure your schedule, and say no to other activities, to prioritize getting your workouts in. You’ve got to follow special rules regarding what you eat, and sometimes how and when you eat. You’ve got to be keenly conscious about the decisions you make regarding your diet and training.

There’s effort required in the actual workouts too, of course. And pain. The stress that makes your muscles grow is not a pleasant thing. Sometimes working out is enjoyable in the midst of it, and sometimes in the afterglow. But if it also doesn’t hurt a little, sometimes a lot — if your legs don’t burn at the bottom of a squat, if your lungs don’t ache at the end of a sprint — you’re not getting better. You’re not getting any faster or stronger. The stress of physical training in fact creates tiny tears in your muscles. When these tears heal, the muscle is rebuilt stronger than it was before.

Training the soul requires the same kind of encompassing commitment and the same submission to the tearing and repairing of your spiritual muscles.

Forsaking the path of least resistance requires strenuous effort. It requires greater consciousness of your principles and your decisions. You must follow certain rules, some of which appear arbitrary to outsiders, and sometimes even to yourself. You must deliberately prioritize the practice of spiritual disciplines and look for opportunities to serve that the untrained and unprepared soul would miss, or spurn.

And you must embrace a certain level of pain.

Denying a lower appetite to fulfill a nobler aim is painful. Re-ordering your priorities to do more for others, and less for yourself, hurts. You must kill your native laziness. You must check your pride and learn to be humble. For virtue to live, you must die to the self. The process of striving for ideals, failing, and getting back up again — of ever trying to be a better man — creates endless tears in the tissue of the ego.

Just as the body cries out for cake when forced to feed on broccoli, the flesh screams to give in to indulgence when forced to walk a harder way.

Just as the body cries out to be released at the apex of a difficult lift, the flesh begs, cons, manipulates to be liberated from the strictures of discipline. “Just this once won’t matter,” “You deserve this,” “This isn’t really wrong given the circumstances.”

No matter the lies one tells oneself in the heat of crisis, at the height of temptation, the truth is that nothing can be sculpted without pressure, nothing can be changed and rebuilt without effort and pain. Progress — whether physical or spiritual — can only be found on the other side of five seconds of grind.

Physical and Spiritual Strength Require Consistency and Habitual Practice

Working out is not a one-and-done kind of affair. You can’t put in a few days of exercise, or a few weeks, or even a few years, and then stop going to the gym, and expect to maintain your fitness. It’s not like putting money in a bank account, where, if you don’t touch it, your investment will stay the same, and even accrue interest. Rather, fitness is like shaving, or flossing, or cleaning or any of the other regular maintenance tasks we have to do again, and again, and again, and that’ll we’ll never be free of. If you don’t use it, you lose it.

Training the soul must be engaged in regularly as well. You can never rest on your laurels, on past spiritual experiences, or former good deeds. Each day we must choose and re-choose to earnestly engage in spiritual disciplines and practices — despite changing circumstances, fluctuating feelings, and encroaching setbacks.

Aristotle said that virtue was a habit like any other, and that just as we get better at playing the piano, by playing the piano, we gain virtue by doing virtuous things. Every time we attempt to deny a lower impulse to grasp a higher one we work out the soul. Every decision we make is a moral contest; even small choices matter, not just in maintaining day-to-day spiritual health, but as preparation for a more strenuous testing. Every time we practice the virtue habit, we settle our souls in a nobler direction.

In The Road to Character, David Brooks describes this painstaking but vitally transformative process:

“Character is built in the course of your inner confrontation. Character is a set of dispositions, desires, and habits that are slowly engraved during the struggle against your own weakness. You become more disciplined, considerate, and loving through a thousand small acts of self-control, sharing, service, friendship, and refined enjoyment. If you make disciplined, caring choices, you are slowly engraving certain tendencies into your mind. You are making it more likely that you will desire the right things and execute the right actions. If you make selfish, cruel, or disorganized choices, then you are slowly turning this core thing inside yourself into something that is degraded, inconstant, or fragmented. You can do harm to this core thing with nothing more than ignoble thoughts, even if you are not harming anyone else. You can elevate this core thing with an act of restraint nobody sees. If you don’t develop a coherent character in this way, life will fall to pieces sooner or later. You will become a slave to your passions. But if you do behave with habitual self-discipline, you will become constant and dependable.”

In the contest for virtue, there’s no standing still; if you’re not striving forward, you’re degrading back.

Physical and Spiritual Strength Require Endurance

“Who then is the invincible? It is he whom none of the things disturb which are independent of the will. Then examining one circumstance after another I observe, as in the case of an athlete; he has come off victorious in the first contest: well then, as to the second? and what if there should be a great heat? and what, if it should be at Olympia? And the same I say in this case: if you should throw money in his way, he will despise it. Well, suppose you put a young girl in his way, what then? and what, if it is in the dark? what if it should be a little reputation, or abuse; and what, if it should be praise; and what if it should be death? He is able to overcome all. What then if it be in heat, and what if it is in the rain, and what if he be in a melancholy (mad) mood, and what if he be asleep? He will still conquer. This is my invincible athlete.” —Epictetus 

“Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” —Hebrews 12:1

Endurance sports require perseverance — the dedication to running or biking a long, long course. You can’t just sprint the first few miles of a marathon, run out of gas, and walk 20 more to the finish. Well, you can, but you’re definitely not going to get an award at the end. To make a good showing, you’ve got to fight fatigue and keep on trucking all the way through.

The pursuit of virtue is also an endurance sport.

When spiritual dryness sets in, when setbacks arise, when temptation grows acute, you can choose to throw in the towel, or you can hold to your principles and keep pushing towards the distant finish line. When the excitement and animating feelings that explode at the beginning of the race begin to flag, you can call it quits, or you can switch to the steadier fuel of duty and discipline, and continue on.

It’s not an easy contest, but if the spiritual athlete perseveres, he can say with the apostle Paul, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

Why Train the Soul?

“To strive with difficulties, and to conquer them, is the highest human felicity. The next is to strive and deserve to conquer; but he whose life has passed without contest, and who can boast neither success nor merit can survey himself only as a useless filler of existence.” —Samuel Johnson

In delineating the many parallels between training the body and training the soul, we have also implicitly laid out the benefits of both kinds of exercise.

Physical training develops bodily health and strength, providing a man with hardness and toughness of physique, greater mobility and agility, wider opportunities for activity, the ability to perform day-to-day tasks, and the capacity to survive and thrive in a crisis. Truly, every man should be physically strong.

Spiritual training develops the health and strength of the soul, increasing its ability to delay gratification and deny lower impulses in favor of higher ones, conquer weaknesses and temptations, act as an autonomous moral agent, make weighty decisions with dexterous wisdom, and, willingly serve other people. For, ideally, training both body and soul leads to a greater desire and capacity to help others along the way, so that we may say, along with 19th century physical culturist Georges Hebert, we have become strong, to be useful.

The ultimate effects of both kinds of training can be summed up in one word: power. The man with a well-trained body and soul possesses the power to do more, and be more. The power to maintain his equilibrium despite life’s ups and downs. The power to transcend the petty status grabs and superficial entertainments of modern culture. The power to sidestep the snares of lust, greed, and pride. The power to attain a virtuous, flourishing, happy life in this world, and, if one so believes, an eternal life in the world to come.

Yet these are not the only reasons to commit to training the soul.

In fact, the most compelling reason of all may be this: in the modern world, the conquest of self constitutes man’s last, best contest.

In a time of luxury and convenience, when most men are not required to struggle with external hardships — do not have to plow the earth or hunt wild game or often even get up from their chair to earn a livelihood; do not have to grapple with the forces of nature; and do not have to go to war — there is little else to push against. There are few other opponents a man can bravely struggle with in order to, as Seneca puts it, “learn what his capacities are.”

In embracing the battle between our best and worst selves, in pursuing the tang of moral heroism, there is energy and meaning that can only be found in confronting a worthy antagonist. As the British writer Henry Fairlie put it, “If we acknowledge that our inclination to sin is part of our natures, and that we will never wholly eradicate it, there is at least something for us to do in our lives that will not in the end seem just futile and absurd.” He also puts it this way: “At least if we recognize that we sin, know that we are individually at war, we may go to war as warriors do, with something of valor and zest and even mirth.”

David Brooks perhaps best captures the attraction of self-conquest when he describes it as the chance to see one’s life as “a moral adventure story.”

There are twists and turns along the way; dragons to slay, new paths to discover, and myriad failures and chances for redemption. And, as long as there’s breath in your body, this hero’s journey never ends. As Epictetus explains, unlike sporting athletes, for whom the opportunity to contend for a prize comes only in occasional races and games, the contest for virtue and the chance for victory begins fresh every single day:

“Consider as to the things that you initially proposed you have managed to achieve, and which you have not, and how it gives you pleasure to remember some of them, and pain to remember others, and if possible recover the things that have slipped away from your grasp. For those who are engaged in this greatest of contest must not shrink back, but must be prepared to endure the blows. For the contest that lies before us is not in wrestling or the pancration, in which, whether a man succeeds or fails, he may be a man of great worth or of little . . . No, it is a contest for good fortune and happiness itself. What follows, then? In this, even if we falter for a time, no one prevents us from renewing the contest, nor need we wait another four years for the next Olympic games to come, but as soon as a man has got a hold on himself and recovered himself, and shows the same zeal as before, he is allowed to take part in the contest, and even if you should falter again, you may begin again, and, if you once become the victor you are as one who has never faltered.”

“The purpose of the struggle against sin and weakness,” Brooks notes, “is not to ‘win,’ because that is not possible; it is to get better at waging it.”

How exactly do you that? In physical training, the body is honed through exercises like running, and by grappling with tangible weights. What then are the exercises and weights — the spiritual disciplines — that can be used to train the soul?

That is where we will turn next time.