Pulling up the weeds: An Examen for self care

Material adapted from a day I led recently in Gilly’s Quiet Garden, part of the Quiet Garden Movement.


Self-care is a bit like weeding.

This thought struck me some weeks ago, as I found myself delicately rescuing one of our roses from the bindweed that had twisted itself tight round the thorny stem. As I was weeding, I was spending time in prayer and reflection, and working through a particular personal conundrum. The task of unwrapping weed from flower served as a helpful outworking of the inner process of “unwrapping” that I was doing – working out the good and the bad – the flower and weed of the particular issue I was reflecting on.

I am a champion of the importance of self-care. Wellbeing, resilience, self-awareness, wholeness – call it what you like but whatever term we use, it’s important. And it’s important not solely for our own sake, but so that we can be a resource, a wellspring to those around us.

Self care begins with the self, but done well, it is never solely about the self. Poor self-care, or no self care, pushes us inwards. We become introspective, self-centred, blind to others around us, and liable to lash out or project our pain onto the people we love – or (worse?) the people we don’t. Good self care enables us to develop good core strength, from which we are able to support and nourish others as well as our self.

What if your life was a bit like a garden?

There are all sorts of different plants and flowers. Some things – as in your life – are thriving and healthy. They have strong, deep roots and high-reaching leaves. Some produce fruit or flowers, so that you enjoy and give away an abundance of produce – just as much of your life will be about giving out to others. Some plants are young, and some are old. Just as some things in your life will be barely beginning, and other things well-established, or perhaps even going to seed. There will be enormous trees, fragile daisies, and everything in-between.

But, if your garden – your life – is the same as mine, then there will be a few weeds around too. Some of them pose little threat – they are shallow rooted and will pull up with no recurrence. Others are more of a problem: deep or extensively rooted, damaging to the good things in the garden, and needing careful, patient, persistent treatment to eradicate.

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Flowers and weeds: An Examen

The Examen is an ancient spiritual practice which aids self-reflection in ways that draw our gaze from within ourselves and out to the world beyond us. It has three stages.

The first step of the Examen is to notice the moments in which all was well:
Where have I sensed peace, security, deep joy, happiness, comfort?

The second step of the Examen is to notice the moments when all was not well:
Where have I sensed discomfort, pain, insecurity, fear, emptiness?

The third step of the Examen takes our answers to the first two questions and uses them to help us lay down the past and look ahead. For what I have been grateful? What now lies ahead?
Step one

What plants are flourishing in your garden?
In what areas of life are you, or have you been flourishing, thriving, and happy?

What plants are you especially proud of?
What of your own achievements are you proud of?

Which plants are strong and healthy?
Where are your strengths and gifts?

Which plants are being especially productive, giving you an abundance of fruit or flowers for you to enjoy or pass on to someone?
In which areas of your life are you able to give from?

And…

Where is this goodness rooted?
What has build your confidence?
Who has been kind to you?
Who has invested in your flourishing?
What—and who—has built you into you?
Step two

What weeds are present in your garden?

Which are shallow rooted annuals, easily pulled up?

Which are deep rooted and complex, needing dedicated attention?

Which give a nasty sting?

Which can you learn to adapt to and live with?

Which are fast growing and destructive?

Which are stealing your sunshine?

And…

Where is this pain rooted?
What has shattered your confidence?
What cruelty have you survived?
What disappointments have you faced?
What inner conflicts need gentle untangling?
Step three

For what am I grateful?

What gifts have I received?

What gifts can I offer?

What do my reflections tell me about who I am?

What do my reflections tell me about who I could be?

What might I become more deeply aware of tomorrow?

What inner pain needs my careful attention?

Where have I found life?

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In quietness and trust: Two simple questions

This is the second in a series of posts on nurturing the inner life alongside young children. You may like to read this brief introduction to the series before continuing.

Two simple questions: The Examen

When it comes to bedtime prayers, we have never knelt by the bed!
Bedtime can be fraught: everyone is tired. Jim and I are often on our way out to a meeting or service, or halfway through a piece of work, or counting the minutes until our own sleep time.
We’ve survived tea time and bath time and we’re onto the final hurdle: stories, songs, prayer, sleep.

Bedtime is a time for simple, reflective prayer. The Examen is an ancient way of praying that encourages us to review the past day, and to notice. To notice where God has been at work, to notice ourselves and our feelings – so often pushed down within us and unprocessed – and the feelings of others. There are many ways of praying The Examen, but it focuses on two main questions (and endless variations thereof):

For what moment today am I most grateful?
For what moment today am I least grateful?

And so this is what we do, as a family. We ask one another:

What was your best thing today?
What was your tricky and difficult thing today?

We ask.
We listen.
We share.
We notice.

And then we sum up with a really simple prayer, thanking God for all the good things of the day, and asking for his help the next day when things get tough.

This is both simple and profound. The kids love the ritual and the repetition. They love asking, and sometimes they stop to listen to the answer. But it goes much deeper too.

First, it asks each of us to be honest, with ourselves and each other. It encourages us not to turn away from the difficult bits of the day and the feelings they created, but to acknowledge them and own them. It encourages us to look for the unseen gifts of the day, and to be thankful for them. It helps the kids to see that their experiences and feelings are valuable and cherished. It gives us a moment to pause, to remember, and to tie up loose ends.

Second, it reminds us that there are four of us in this family. What one of us may have found difficult, the others barely noticed. What another is rejoicing in, the others failed to value. Practicing the Examen together draws our gaze to the other. It gives us glimpses into worlds and feelings beyond our own.

And third, over time, it helps us work out what is important to us. What draws us close to one another? What makes us happy? What unsettles us? How can we build stronger family relationships? How can we listen and hear one another more through the day? What do we each value? How do we decide what is important when we make big decisions together?

In these simple questions, we are noticing God at work, and we are teaching each other that everyone matters. No matter what has happened that day, the Examen draws us together and helps us end well, and not unthinkingly.

And all that from two simple questions.

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